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ROME – Popes seem to have a habit of visiting Kazakhstan amid major crises and conflicts that risk fracturing regional stability and splintering its diverse religious and ethnic communities, and Pope Francis’s visit this week is no exception.
When Pope John Paul II visited Kazakhstan in 2001, it was just 10 years after the country gained independence amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and roughly 10 days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States that leveled the Twin Towers and claimed thousands of American lives.
Shortly after, U.S. President George W. Bush declared his global War on Terror, which John Paul II had tried to prevent, and which heightened the prospect of a further escalation of geopolitical and interfaith tensions.
At the time, Kazakh citizens were still grappling with how to craft a new society in the post-Soviet era and tensions with Islam were at an all-time high in the majority-Muslim nation, where Christians are a small minority.
In his speeches and homilies throughout the visit, John Paul II offered encouragement to those still disillusioned by the breakup of the Soviet Union, and he also sent a clear message of tolerance, praising the central Asian nation as a place of harmony where different religious confessions were able to work together in building a world without violence.
Two years later, in 2003, the first Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions was launched by 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 – in an effort to foster stronger ties among Kazakhstan’s different religious communities and to shed light on the unique inter-religious history of the country.
Pope Francis, who is poised to arrive in Kazakhstan on Tuesday for the seventh edition of the congress, finds himself in a similar situation of regional instability and uncertainty, as the country is in many ways caught in the middle of the Ukraine-Russia war, the region’s most violent conflict since the World War II.
The war, which erupted after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, has so far caused around 12 million people to flee their homes and has claimed thousands of civilian lives, including those of children. Some seven million people are believed to be internally displaced by fighting, while an estimated five million have fled to neighboring countries while bombs continue to ravage their homes and cities.
Francis will be in Kazakhstan Sept. 13-15 to participate in the congress and meet with other faith leaders who are present, and with members of the country’s small Catholic community. It will mark his 38th foreign trip since taking office in March 2013.
The Vatican delegation to the congress, which is usually led by the president of Kazakhstan’s senate, is typically always led by cardinal; however, this year, it will be the pope. The event customarily takes place in Nur-Sultan’s Palace of Peace; however, this year, 108 delegations will be present, and due to the high number of participants, the congress has been moved to the Palace of Independence to accommodate the larger numbers.
Given the geopolitical backdrop against which the pope’s visit is taking place, peace and fraternal dialogue will likely be key themes underpinning many of his messages and speeches.
In his Sunday Angelus address, the pope spoke of his visit to Kazakhstan, saying it would be an opportunity “to meet many religious representatives and to dialogue among brothers, animated by the common desire for peace, peace of which our world thirsts.”
He thanked the congress organizers and asked faithful to pray for him during “this pilgrimage of dialogue and peace.”
A history of diversity and solidarity
Kazakhstan is one of the largest countries in Central Asia, with a population of 19 million composed of around 150 ethnic groups. Roughly 70 percent of Kazaks are Muslim, and about 26 percent are Christian, many of whom belong to the Russian Orthodox and Greek Catholic traditions.
The presence of Christianity in Kazakhstan grew in the 19th century, as high numbers of Poles, Belarussians, Ukrainians, and Russians were deported there by Russian tsars. Their number grew further during the religious persecution of Joseph Stalin, who during the Soviet era sent hundreds of thousands of Christians to labor camps in the 30s and 40s.
Many of these Christians were taken in by Kazakh Muslim families, sparking a natural sense of solidarity and appreciation that remains to this day.
Catholics themselves, who amount to around 1 percent of the current population, have been present in Kazakhstan since the second century, when Roman prisoners of war were exiled there by the Persians, meaning they also likely arrived for the most part as prisoners.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Catholic Church was restored in Kazakhstan and the faithful began to worship publicly. However, a large number of deportees returned to their native homes and countries, with at least four million people emigrating in the post-Soviet era, causing the Christian population in Kazakhstan to dwindle.
Yet they continue to maintain a consistent presence and interfaith ties are generally good. In fact, the Bishops’ Conference of Central Asia, established in 2021 and of which Kazakhstan is a part, has been growing and encompasses several Asian countries.
Living next to war
The war in Ukraine is an unavoidable topic for the pope while he’s in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan shares a 5,000-mile border with Russia, meaning it will be the closest Pope Francis has been to either Russia or Ukraine since the war began. Francis has repeatedly voiced his desire to visit both countries in a bid to promote dialogue and peaceful negotiations and has condemned the war as “madness.”
Francis was expected to meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill – who has vocally supported the war and who was originally scheduled to attend the congress in Kazakhstan – during a sidebar conversation, prompting speculation that the pope would make a brief stop in Ukraine either before or after Kazakhstan.
However, Kirill last month announced that he was pulling out of the congress, meaning the meeting with Kirill, and a potential visit to Ukraine, are off the table. In fact, the flight plan for the papal plane avoids the most direct route to the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan, which would take the pope over portions of both Russia and Ukraine, meaning telegrams would be dispatched to the leaders of each, as it’s the pope’s custom to send telegrams to the leaders of the countries he flies over.
Instead, the papal plane is taking the long route, passing over a number of countries including Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia-Montenegro, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.
Pope Francis has yet to receive an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Russia, and in a recent interview he said a trip to Ukraine is out of the question due to his ongoing osteoarthritis of the knee, meaning Kazakhstan is likely the closest he will get to either country in the near future.
In terms of how Kazakhs view the war, the director of Caritas Kazakhstan, Father Guido Trezzani, told journalists during an online meeting last week that there is concern, but “you don’t feel the conflict” in a direct way, and there are no “attempts at aggression, demonstrations, of verbal aggression of one against the other.”
The country’s leaders, he said, want to play a greater diplomatic role in Central Asia, so “there is a tendency to stay neutral. Because of this, there are no demonstrations or reflections of the war or conflict inside of the country.”
Despite the lack of any overt tension among Kazakhstan’s Russian and Ukrainian populations, Bishop Adelio Dell’Oro of Karaganda during a Sept. 8 online media roundtable described the situation as “delicate.”
While there are no blatant signs of conflict inside of Kazakhstan, Dell’Oro said the presence of both ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, as well as Kazakhstan’s economic dependence on both, has caused a certain level of discomfort.
At the political level, leaders have at times broken their neutrality, he said, noting that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during a speech in March publicly refused to recognize the independent republics of Luhansk and Donetsk that Putin had declared in eastern Ukraine.
“This is the delicate situation Kazakhstan is living,” he said, saying most people “are suffering” due to the war, socially and economically, but they do not hold it against the Russian people themselves.
Dell’Oro said he is saddened by Kirill’s decision not to attend the conference, voicing his belief that the decision “caused an embarrassment” for the Russian Orthodox community, and the congress organizers.
A meeting between Kirill and Pope Francis at the margins of the conference “would have been notable,” and would have helped “to clarify what contribution various communities could have given to peace in the world,” he said, but insisted that the pope’s presence will still be “very important to open processes of peace in the whole world where there are conflicts, especially in Ukraine.”
Dell’Oro said he expects the pope to “amplify” his calls for peace and harmony while in Kazakhstan, and to repeat his message: “We are his children and so brothers and sisters among us. The wait for a message like this is certainly there.”
China will be a silent theme
While the war in Ukraine will likely take center stage during the pope’s visit, an underlying theme will undoubtedly be the Vatican’s relationship with China, as Kazakhstan also shares a significant border with its neighbor to the south.
Although China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to confirm the visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Kazakhstan for his first post-COVID international trip at the same time the pope will be there.
Jinping is expected to stop in Nur-Sultan Wednesday, the second day of Pope Francis’s own visit to Kazakhstan. He will then travel to Uzbekistan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand, where he is expected to meet Putin.
Outreach to China has been one of the most contentious aspects of Francis’s papacy, and his visit to Kazakhstan takes him the closest he’s ever been to the country.
Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan also takes place as the Vatican and China are negotiating the renewal of their controversial agreement on the appointment of bishops, which was struck in 2018 and reportedly allows the pope to pick from a group of candidates put forward by the Chinese government.
Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in a recent interview, said the deal, which expires this month, will likely be renewed, sparking rumors about a potential meeting between Pope Francis and Jinping while the two are in Kazakhstan together this week.
China has also been in a global hot seat over the reported persecution of religious communities – which includes bans on Mass attendance, the bulldozing of churches, or the tearing down of crosses from places of worship – its treatment of the minority Muslim Uighur population, and its recent escalation of tensions with Taiwan after the visit this summer of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, is also set to begin trial next week for subversion over his support for the city’s pro-democracy movement.
The charges were made under Hong Kong’s new national security law, imposed by Beijing in 2020, meaning Jinping has more than one reason to dodge a potential meeting with the pope.
Whether that meeting happens remains to be seen, but if one thing is certain, it’s that Pope Francis will likely arrive in Kazakhstan with a clear message not only to the country itself, but to its regional neighbors, and even in their absence, the eyes of everyone, including Putin and Jinping, will be watching.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen