ROME – Pope Francis arrived in Kazakhstan Tuesday condemning the war in Ukraine and telling Kazakh leaders that given the country’s location and diverse ethnic and religious composition, it plays a unique role in promoting peace in the region.
He also praised the harmonic coexistence of Kazakhstan’s diverse communities and lauded the country’s commitment to nuclear disarmament and the protection of the environment, as well as its decision last year by Kazakh authorities to abolish the death penalty.
Speaking to civil authorities and the diplomatic corps in Kazakhstan, the pope in his Sept. 13 speech said he is visiting the country “as a pilgrim of peace, seeking dialogue and unity.”
Kazakhstan, he said, represents “a significant geopolitical crossroads,” and as such, it has “a fundamental role to play in lessening cases of conflict.”
Francis recalled that when his predecessor, John Paul II, visited in 2001, it was just days after the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Now, “I am visiting you in the course of the senseless and tragic war that broke out with the invasion of Ukraine,” he said.
Pope Francis said he came “to echo the plea of all those who cry out for peace, which is the essential path to development for our globalized world.”
Pope Francis will be on an official visit to the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan from Sept. 13-15 to attend the seventh edition of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who has been vocally supportive of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, was also slated to attend the high-profile gathering, prompting rumors of a possible meeting between the pope and the patriarch, but he pulled out at the last minute.
A second meeting between Francis and Kirill, following their historic meeting in Havana in 2016, was being organized in Jerusalem in June, however, on that occasion, the Vatican canceled due to the potential diplomatic fallout over Kirill’s support of the Ukraine war.
Pope Francis has on several occasions expressed his desire to visit both Russia and Ukraine. His visit to Kazakhstan, which shares 5,000 miles of border with Russia and also a portion of border with Ukraine, will be the closest he has been to either country since the war began over six months ago.
In his speech to authorities, which was his first formal address of the trip, Francis stressed the need to “expand the efforts of diplomacy to promote dialogue and encounter.”
“Nowadays the problem of one is the problem of all, and those who hold greater power in the world have greater responsibility with regard to others, especially those countries most prone to unrest and conflict,” he said, insisting, “This should be our concern, not merely our own individual interests.”
Francis said that now is the time “to stop intensifying rivalries and reinforcing opposing blocs,” saying there is an urgent need of leaders “who, on the international level, can enable peoples to grow in mutual understanding and dialogue.”
Invoking the “spirit of Helsinki,” in reference to the historic 1975 Helsinki Accords on security and cooperation in Europe, he said world leaders must show determination “to strengthen multilateralism, to build a more stable and peaceful world, with an eye to future generations.”
For this to happen, he said, “what is needed is understanding, patience and dialogue with all. I repeat: with all.”
Pope Francis also highlighted Kazakhstan’s complicated history, especially during the Soviet era, recalling how the country was a place of exile for prisoners and detainees, who were often sent to work in Kazakh labor camps.
Kazakhstan, then, “embraces a glorious history of culture, humanity and suffering. How can we fail to recall, in particular, the prison camps and the mass deportations that witnessed, in the cities and in the boundless steppes of these regions, the oppression of so many peoples?” he said.
However, Kazakhs have overcome this history, he said. “The memory of your seclusion led to a deep concern for inclusion.”
He asked that the memory of the vast displacements and sufferings the people endured would be “an indispensable part of your journey towards the future, inspiring you to give absolute priority to human dignity, the dignity of every man and woman, and of every ethnic, social and religious group.”
Francis focused much of his speech on the image of the dombra, a traditional Kazakh guitar-like instrument made of wood and two strings. The two strings, he said, are emblematic of Kazakhstan’s role as a “bridge between Europe and Asia.”
They also serve as a reminder that “harmony grows and matures in togetherness, in the choral unity that leads to a ‘symphonic’ social life,” which he said is an especially poignant image for the 550 ethnic groups and 80 different languages present in the country.
In this context, Pope Francis also spoke of the importance of religious freedom, which is guaranteed by the Kazakh constitution, saying a healthy secularity “acknowledges the important and indispensable role of religion and resists the forms of extremism that disfigure it.”
This form of secularity is “an essential condition for the equal treatment of each citizen,” he said. “Religious freedom represents the best channel for civil coexistence.”
He also spoke of democracy and Kazakhstan’s own process of democratization, which has at times been tumultuous, saying democracy as a system “constitutes the most suitable form for translating power into service to the entire people and not simply to a few.”
Kazakhstan’s pursuit of greater democracy, aimed at “strengthening the competencies of the Parliament and of the local authorities and, more generally, a greater distribution of power,” he said, is a “meritorious and demanding process” that requires time and effort, “without turning back.”
“Democracy and modernization everywhere must be more than fine words; they must be embodied in concrete service to people,” he said, saying this implies “a ‘good politics,’ born of listening to people and responding to their legitimate needs,” as well as constant engagement with civil society, NGOs and humanitarian organizations, and a special concern for workers, youth, and the most vulnerable.
This “truly democratic political style,” he said, “is the most effective response to possible cases of extremism, personalism and populism that threaten the stability and welfare of peoples.”
Pope Francis also praised Kazakhstan for the passing of a bill last year that abolished the death penalty, and for its environmental efforts and commitment to nuclear disarmament.
Noting that the Holy See and Kazakhstan are about to celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations, he assured leaders of the desire of Catholics “to continue to testify to the spirit of openness and respectful dialogue that distinguishes this land.”
Francis closed his address thanking authorities for their welcome, and praying that God would bless “the vocation of peace and unity proper to Kazakhstan, the country of encounter.”
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