Bishop Mumbiela Sierra of Almaty, Kazkistan, was elected a few weeks ago as the first president of the new Conference of Catholic Bishops of Central Asia. He speaks to AsiaNews: 'An experience of fraternity that is important for the growth of our communities. We are a periphery that bears witness to God's love for the whole world".
Rome (AsiaNews) - Monsignor José Luis Mumbiela Sierra, bishop of Almaty in Kazakhstan, will be 53 years old on 27 May, and since the end of April he is also the first president of the new Conference of Catholic Bishops of Central Asia (CVCAC). He shared his story with AsiaNews: a diocesan priest in Lleida since 1995, three years later he was sent as a fidei donum missionary to Kazakhstan, first to the parish of Šymkent and then to the interdiocesan seminary of Karaganda.
"It is now an international seminary, we also have students from Russia and Georgia," says the bishop. "Currently there are about ten seminarians, and local priests are also beginning to arrive as educators and teachers, after having completed their preparation in Rome. At the end of May, there will be a new rector, Father Ruslan, a Kazakh national'.
Bishop Sierra has been bishop of Almaty, the country's main city, since 2011. 'Today there are about 2 million people living there, and in the entire region there are 8 million out of the almost 18 in the whole of Kazakhstan, a little less than half of the entire population, and therefore Catholics here are also in greater numbers, along with the Astana region'.
What lead to teh creation of the new Episcopal Conference?
"It is a very important event not only from an organisational point of view, but also for the growth of Catholic communities in all Central Asian countries. We are not the only example of a transnational conference, there are for example Denmark and Belgium, but also Cambodia and Laos: not many Churches, often new Churches that have to support each other. This is a very important step for the smaller communities, which are now very happy to have the Church of Kazakhstan as a point of reference, where there are now four dioceses, more than 40 parishes and 90 priests. In addition to resolving ecclesiastical issues, it is a great experience of fraternity between bishops and priest-administrators, the possibility to share our experiences, and to contribute to unity among the faithful and among all the people of the various nations that make up this new structure".
How many members are there, and what differences are there between the member countries?
"The CVCAC includes bishops and apostolic administrators from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Afghanistan, and the brethren from Azerbaijan also participate as guests. These countries have a long history in common, characterised by an Asian culture of nomadic origin, which forms a bridge between different civilisations. Among ourselves we communicate mainly in Russian, also using our languages of origin, because not everyone has learnt the language sufficiently. In these areas, Catholics were traditionally divided into the group of Polish origin and that of German origin, but this composition is now outdated: many have emigrated, and families have become ethnically mixed, we are living a new page in the history of the Catholic Church in Central Asia'.
What relations do you have with other religious denominations?
"This is really a very important aspect for us, especially in Kazakhstan, but not only, even from Baku they testify how intense ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is. There is indeed a tendency towards unity between religions and cultures here. In Kazakhstan, the meeting of representatives of religions has been held for thirty years, where in September we will have a visit from Pope Francis; the many variants of Islam, the Orthodox brothers and sisters and other Christian denominations, Jews, Buddhists, Krišnaites and many others participate'.
Do you also have relations with the rest of the Asian continent?
"As bishops of Kazakhstan we have already been invited as guests to the Continental Bishops' Conference for years, after all, our country is not only Central Asia, it has eastern territories in common with Chinese and Indian culture, it is very extensive, although not so densely populated. We will see if it will be possible to invite representatives of other Churches in Asia as guests".
What impact are the conflicts, between the January clashes in Kazakhstan and the war between Russia and Ukraine, having?
"The January tensions are now over, a new path has begun for the entire Kazakh community, with major changes taking place in social life and a restructuring of political representation and government. We will soon have an important constitutional referendum, we can see that the political oppositions are also participating constructively in the reforms. All these changes do not directly involve the life of religious communities, they are political issues that do not affect us directly.
We feel the events of the war in Europe, they affect us directly because of the presence of so many Ukrainians and Russians in our midst, citizens of Kazakhstan and also refugees or emigrants of recent times. It is a difficulty that is felt above all in families, where there are great divisions, and also in our own communities, in small villages, in the many forms of social life that bring people together. There are so many tensions, it is difficult to maintain unity, and there are also consequences for the economy. In fact, Kazakhstan does not follow Russia's policy and remains neutral, so the worst consequences of sanctions only marginally affect us, for now we live in normality'.
What would you like to contribute to help define the path of the Church in Central Asia?
"We are waiting for Pope Francis in September, it will be an important moment not only for Kazakhstan, but for the entire region, for our communities and all the people. There is great expectation, not only among Catholics, many consider the role of Pope Francis in the world fundamental, his words in defence of peace and support for the poor and marginalised. We are a periphery that bears witness to God's love for the whole world'.