NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan – On his second full day in a central Asian nation located just a stone’s throw from Ukraine, and which shares with Russia the world’s longest continuous border, Pope Francis told religious leaders that humanity is looking to them for guidance amid many challenges, especially that of achieving peace.

Speaking to participants in the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Leaders in Kazakhstan Wednesday – a lineup that includes the second-highest cleric in the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leadership has vigorously defended President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine – the pope voiced hope the event would “open a new route, centered on human relationships: on respect, sincere dialogue, respect for the inviolable dignity of each human being and mutual cooperation. A route that is fraternal, to be travelled together towards the goal of peace.”

As religious leaders, “the world expects us to be examples of souls alive and minds clear; it looks to us for an authentic religiosity,” he said, adding, “It is time to realize that fundamentalism defiles and corrupts every creed; time for [an] open and compassionate heart.”

Though he did not specifically mention the war in Ukraine, Pope Francis spoke of the challenge of pursuing peace, noting that despite all the talk of peace in recent decades, the world is “still plagued by the scourge of war, by a climate of hostility and confrontation, by an inability to step back and hold out a hand to the other.”

“Brothers and sisters, a leap forward is required, and it needs to come from us,” he said, and urged leaders to be united in ensuring that God “will never again be held hostage to the human thirst for power.”

“Each and every one of us needs to be purified of evil…let us purify ourselves of the presumption of feeling self-righteous, with no need to learn anything from anyone,” he said. “Let us free ourselves of those reductive and destructive notions that offend the name of God by harshness, extremism and forms of fundamentalism, and profane it through hatred, fanaticism, and terrorism.”

As religious leaders, “May we never justify violence. May we never allow the sacred to be exploited by the profane,” he said, insisting that “The sacred must never be a prop for power, nor power a prop for the sacred!”

While applicable to each of the religions represented at the congress in the majority Muslim nation, Pope Francis’s words hold a particular weight given the frequent defense of the war in Ukraine on religious grounds by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

Kirill, who has vocally supported the war as a defense of Christian values, was originally slated to attend the congress, but pulled out at the last minute, although a place with his nametag was still set at the main table where the religious leaders sat. The congress instead is being attended by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Sevryuk of Volokolamsk, the patriarchate’s “foreign minister.”

On Tuesday, the Vatican confirmed that Francis is scheduled to meet Sevryuk during the private sessions of the congress, one of seven individual sit-downs he is slated to have during that time.

Francis urged the religious leaders present to commit themselves further to resolving conflicts “not by the inconclusive means of power, with arms and threats, but by the only means blessed by heaven and worthy of man: encounter, dialogue and patient negotiations, which make progress especially when they take into consideration the young and future generations.”

Pope Francis is currently on a 3-day visit to the capital city of Kazakhstan to participate in the congress.

He spoke to national authorities and the diplomatic corps in Kazakhstan after arriving in Nur-Sultan Tuesday. He is scheduled to attend congress sessions Wednesday morning and will celebrate Mass for the country’s small Catholic minority Wednesday afternoon.

After the opening session, time was reserved for private meetings among the various religious leaders present.

Nearly 100 faith leaders, including Pope Francis, from 50 countries are participating in the 2-day summit. Others in attendance include Sevryuk; Yitzhak Yosef, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel; and Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar.

In his speech, he spoke of the importance of religion in society, saying it is time “to consign to the history books the kind of talk that for all too long, here and elsewhere, has led to distrust and contempt for religion, as if it were a destabilizing force in modern society.”

Kazakhstan, given its own history of religious oppression under the Soviet Union, is “all too familiar with the legacy of decades of state-imposed atheism,” he said, saying, “Religion is not a problem, but part of the solution for a more harmonious life in society,” he said.

Francis made numerous references throughout his speech to Kazakh poet Abai Qunanbaiuly, known simply as “Abai” among Kazakhs, who he said challenges humanity on the essential and deep questions of life.

“Questions like these point to humanity’s need for religion,” he said, and stressed the importance of religious freedom, saying humanity was created free, and therefore, “Each person has the right to render public testimony to his or her own creed, proposing it without ever imposing it.”

“This is the correct method of preaching, as opposed to proselytism and indoctrination, from which all are called to step back,” he said.

Francis said the congress itself is an opportunity to reflect on what role religions have in the spiritual and social development of humanity in a post-pandemic world.

To this end, in addition to the pursuit of global peace, he highlighted three other global challenges that religious leaders can play a key role in resolving though a “greater unity of purpose.”

Speaking of the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the pope said the virus “put us all in the same boat” and made humanity aware of its vulnerability.

“None of us completely independent, none completely self-sufficient,” he said, and urged leaders not to “squander” the solidarity that emerged during the pandemic.

Rather, religions “must not be indifferent to this: they are called to be present on the front lines, as promoters of unity amid the grave challenges that risk dividing our human family even further,” he said.

“It is up to us…to help our brothers and sisters at the present time not to forget our vulnerability,” rather than falling prey to the illusion of omnipotence born from technological and economic progress, he said, cautioning leaders not to fall prey to “the web of profits and earnings, as if they were the solution to every evil.”

COVID-19 was also a reminder of the importance of care, and of the need for humanity to become “artisans of communion,” which he said begins with the poor “by giving a voice to the voiceless, by bearing witness to a global solidarity concerned above all for them.”

“Let us be on their side, not on the side of those who have more and give less. Let us become prophetic and courageous voices of conscience,” he said, adding, “As long as inequality and injustice continue to proliferate, there will be no end to viruses even worse than Covid: the viruses of hatred, violence and terrorism.”

The pope said fraternal acceptance is another major global challenge that must be addressed, specifically when it comes to the vulnerable, and to those displaced due to war, poverty, or climate change.

“Each day children, born and unborn, migrants and elderly persons, are cast aside. Many of our brothers and sisters die sacrificed on the altar of profit, amid clouds of the sacrilegious incense of indifference. Yet every human being is sacred,” he said, saying, “It is above all our task, the task of the religions, to remind the world of this.”

As a “great exodus” of people continue to flee their home countries throughout the world, it is important, the pope said, to remember that “This is not just another item on the daily news; it is an historic event demanding concordant and farsighted solutions.”

“Let us rediscover the art of hospitality, of acceptance, of compassion. And let us learn also to be ashamed: yes, to experience that healthy shame born of compassion for those who suffer, sympathy and concern for their condition and for their fate, which we realize that we too share,” he said.

He also cited the importance of overcoming challenges in caring for the environment, and stressed the need for a greater commitment in that regard.

“With loving care, the Most High provided a common home for all life. How can we, who claim to be his, allow it to be polluted, mistreated and devastated?” he asked, saying, “Let us also join our efforts in meeting this challenge. It is not the least in importance.”

Pope Francis closed his lengthy address urging religious leaders to move forward together, “so that the journey of the religions may be increasingly marked by friendship.”

“May we never aim at artificial and conciliatory forms of syncretism, but firmly maintain our own identities, open to the courage of otherness and to fraternal encounter,” he said, adding, “Only in this way, in these dark times in which we live, will we be able to radiate the light of our Creator.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen