Kazakh Catholic bishop backs government claims of attempted coup d’état

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Spanish by birth and Kazakh by soul, Bishop José Luis Mumbiela, president of the Episcopal Conference of Kazakhstan, says he believes the recent violent protests were an attempted coup.

Speaking with journalists via Zoom he refuted some media reports that claimed the government, with the aid of Russian troops, had attacked “peaceful civilians.” 

“This is totally wrong information,” said the prelate, who has been in Kazakhstan since 1998.

Ordained a priest in 1995 and assigned to Kazakhstan in 1998, Mumbiela has been in charge of the diocese of Almaty since 2011. With a community of some 100,000, Catholics represent an important minority in a country of 20 million. An estimated 60 percent are Muslims and 30 percent Christians, mostly Russian Orthodox.

RELATED: Pope appeals for peace in Kazakhstan, says prayer is not ‘magic’

The majority of the Catholic population is of German, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian origin, with their relatives having been deported by Stalin after World War II.

After admitting that he is not a political scientist, the prelate stressed the geopolitical importance of the country: It is one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, and in its subsoil it has mineral deposits of chrome, nickel, uranium, and cobalt. 

In short, Mumbiela argued, it is the most prosperous country in Central Asia.

Riot police prepare to block protesters in the center of Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 5, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city of Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men reportedly joined the peaceful rallies and urged them to storm police stations and government buildings. (Credit: Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ via AP.)

He was an eyewitness to the protests that erupted Jan. 2, since he lives very close to the City Hall Square in Almaty, the economic center of Kazakhstan. He saw places being destroyed by the protesters. Mumbiela argued that there were many who were protesting in a truly peaceful way, while others brought weapons. 

The missionary priest said that both “well-intentioned and ill-intentioned” people took part, and when “good mixes with evil,” verifying the facts becomes harder. 

Fluent in Spanish, English and Russian, he spoke with journalists in Spanish, at an event organized by ISCOM, a Church media organization.

Mumbiela agreed with the contention of the government, which claimed that it was an attempted “coup d’état” involving both local criminals and jihadist militiamen from Afghanistan and the Middle East. 

This, he argued, is what triggered the crisis that hit Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year.

Almaty, the financial heart of the country, was the epicenter of the unrest. Though initial reports claimed that the protests were due to a rise in the price of liquefied gas, the bishop said this was merely “the spark that lit the fire.”

The gas protests – explained Mumbiela – were originally organized by peaceful people. However, they were soon joined by violent, organized groups who took advantage of the crisis.

“I could hear the gunshots, a police station near my house suffered 27 attempts to take it over,” the bishop explained. Furthermore, “the attackers had snipers placed in neighboring houses to attack the police.” 

“They were already prepared,” he said. “That is what is surprising. Those people were no longer coming to protest about gas, or about the government as usual. They were people militarily prepared for a major action and with massive cooperation from the security groups.”

He said the violent protesters tried to loot the first floor of the building where he lives in the center of the city. 

“You could hear the bombs. They came with a big iron sledgehammer and tried to smash the front door,” he had said in a previous interview.

The protesters began to walk through the streets from the east of the city to the city hall, he said. During the four miles that divide one from the other, violent groups destroyed “everything on their way: ATMs, stores, businesses, surveillance cameras.” 

He also claimed the protestors stole construction equipment to break shop windows, and seized ammunition and weapons. 

“They wanted to free prisoners in Almaty and other cities,” the bishop claimed. 

In this image taken from video released by Kazakhstan’s Presidential Press Service, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks during his televised address to the nation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Jan. 7, 2022. Tokayev has blamed the unrest on “terrorists” who received foreign training and support. (Credit: Kazakhstan’s Presidential Press Service via AP.)

Following the initial peaceful demonstrations, President Kasim-Yomart Tokaev “had publicly informed that he accepted some of the protesters’ requests,” Mumbiela said. Therefore, he emphasized, the government had an “attitude of dialogue” when the protests began.

Tokayev announced on Jan. 11 that the 2,030 Russian troops he had asked Vladimir Putin to deploy in the country would begin a “gradual withdrawal” that would last “no more than ten days.” 

Beyond the presence of a small number of Russian soldiers, Almaty today is virtually back to normal, with most services normalized, and the police presence reduced.

The government says 44 people were killed, although others put the death toll at 164. In addition, at least a thousand people were wounded and 2,000 arrested.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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