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ROME – As Kazakhs await Pope Francis’s arrival to the country in just a few days’ time, one of Kazakhstan’s top prelates has said Catholics are anxious to welcome him, and hope his presence will help promote peace in Ukraine.
In an interview with Crux, Archbishop Tomash Peta of the Archdiocese of Mary Most Holy in Kazakhstan, said a papal visit to any country is always a special event, and that, “For the Catholics of our country, since we represent a ‘small flock,’ this event will have a special importance.”
“The entire nation of Kazakhstan is rejoicing over the visit of Pope Francis,” which for locals serves as a reminder of “how blessed had been the first papal visit of St. John Paul II in 2001,” he said.
Pope Francis will visit Kazakhstan Sept. 13-15 to participate in a high-level Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, an interfaith summit held every three years in a bid to foster stronger ties among Kazakhstan’s different religious communities, and to shed light on the unique interreligious history of the country.
The congresses began in 2003 under former President Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev – a Soviet and Kazakh politician who served as first president of Kazakhstan from its independence in 1991 until his formal resignation in 2019 – and they continue to this day.
During the first congress, delegates from 17 different religious and sectarian bodies around the world gathered with the aim of reinforcing interfaith dialogue and religious freedom in the Central Asian nation amid fresh ethno-religious conflicts that sprung up in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
The congress was reportedly inspired by statements made by organizers of the Day of Prayer for World Peace, convened by Pope John Paul II in January 2002 in Assisi to shed light on the contribution of different religions to dialogue and understanding among peoples and nations.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was also scheduled to attend this year’s congress, raising expectations about a possible meeting between he and Pope Francis; however, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow announced last month that Kirill would not participate.
Pope Francis and Kirill are known to be at odds over the war in Ukraine. Kirill has been vocally supportive of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, whereas Pope Francis, while refraining from directly naming Russia as the aggressor in the conflict, has vocally condemned the war as “madness” and issued numerous calls for peace.
The two religious leaders were supposed to meet in Jerusalem in June; however, the Vatican pulled the plug, citing the diplomatic fallout the meeting was expected to create given Kirill’s backing of the war.
Pope Francis has voiced his desire to visit both Russia and Ukraine in a bid to promote peace and assist in negotiations. There were some rumors that he would visit Ukraine before Kazakhstan; however, in a recent interview with CNN Portugal, the pope said Ukraine is currently off the table due his ongoing knee troubles.
Yet despite the fact that Kirill is not attending the conference, and that ecclesial divisions over the war appear deeper than ever, Peta said that in Kazakhstan, “all are hoping that the visit of the pope will contribute to an end of the war in Ukraine.”
He said it is the role of religious leaders in this context “to be a reference.”
“True religion, the faith in the true God, reminds us that for achieving peace, the efforts of the politicians are insufficient,” he said, saying true peace “is a gift of the Almighty God, therefore there is the need of prayer in order to obtain that gift.”
“We hope that the Congress of the Leaders of Religions will point to the true source of peace – to God, and will bring us closer to the long-awaited peace,” he said.
In Kazakhstan, Catholics are a small minority. Roughly 72 percent of Kazakhstan’s population of 18.7 million are Muslim. Just 26 percent are Christian, and of these, only around 250,000 are Catholic.
According to Peta, the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan, while small, is vibrant, active, and devout. Catholicism in the country “has grown out from the blood and tears of the martyrs and has, therefore, a solid foundation,” he said.
“For decades the faithful didn’t have churches or priests. They kept their faith thanks to prayer,” particularly the praying of the rosary, he said, saying the rosary to this day is considered a special prayer for many Kazakh Catholic families, and is prayed daily in parishes throughout the country.
Kazakh parishes also hold a moment of Eucharistic Adoration before daily Masses, and since 2002, there is 24-hour adoration in Astana’s Catholic cathedral.
Since Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, making it the last Soviet republic to declare independence, many Catholics, especially Germans and Poles, have left, Peta said, saying the number of Catholics in the country has “decreased significantly.”
“At the same time, the Catholic Church in our country became more international. Representatives of many nationalities are Catholics, as well as representatives of the native population,” he said, saying, “It is no longer possible to call us a ‘German’ or ‘Polish’ church.”
Relations among religions are generally good and “often cordial,” Peta said, noting that there are living representatives of around 130 nationalities and 18 different registered religions in Kazakhstan.
Peta credited the good relations among them as being “a fruit of the tragic past: the common suffering during the persecutions.”
Civil authorities in the country also “have great merits,” he said, saying they promote “dialogue and peaceful coexistence.”
On the topic of religious freedom and the ability of minorities to practice their faith without government interference, Peta said this is not a concern for Catholics in Kazakhstan.
“One of the first laws of the independent Kazakhstan was the Statute on freedom of religion and conscience. There exists also an agreement ‘between the Vatican and Kazakhstan,’ which is signed and ratified,” he said, adding, “We Catholics feel free in our country.”
In terms of the pope’s visit, Peta said the country is looking forward to Francis’s arrival “with joy and hope.”
A special moment will come when the pope, on Sept. 15, his last day in Kazakhstan, will visit the new icon of “Mother of the Great Steppe” by Kazakh artist Dosbol Kasymov, which represents the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus as native Kazakhs.
It will be placed in a new prayer chapel in Kazakhstan’s only Marian shrine, the National Shrine of Mary Queen of Peace in Ozernoe, which sits roughly 250 miles northwest of the capital city of Nur-Sultan.
The icon, Peta said, “will be a precious reminder of the papal visit.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen