10/18/2011, 00.00
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New rules on religious freedom put at risk Kazakhstan’s Catholic Church

Fr Edoardo Canetta, a missionary in Kazakhstan, warns that new rules adopted by the Kazakh government limit entry visas for foreign religious. More than half of the country’s priests and bishops do not have Kazakh citizenship. The local Church and the Vatican’s relations with local authorities are to blame.
Astana (AsiaNews) – “The new laws on registering and controlling religious communities put at risk the Catholic Church of Kazakhstan. There will be restrictions on visas for foreign religious. About half of all Catholic priests and bishops come from other countries,” Fr Edoardo Canetta told AsiaNews. The Italian missionary and university professor, who has lived in Kazakhstan for 11 years, is in Italy for family reasons. “The new rules,” he explained, “concern mainly Muslim and Protestant groups deemed aggressive, but they damage all non traditional religious groups.”

Enacted on 13 October by will of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the new rules want to indigenise religious communities in accordance with a control system used by the Chinese government. Only the Russian Orthodox Church and Kazakh Muslims are considered traditional and thus do not fall under the new restrictions. In order to survive at the national level and avoid penalties, non-indigenous groups must prove that they have 5,000 members.

According to Fr Canetta, the new rules are very similar to those already in place. They include tight state control over religious groups. However, the “worse novelty for the Kazakh Church is the tightening of visas for foreigners and the criteria for confessional group registration, which slow down the birth of new communities, including Catholic ones.”

In order to keep a lid on the expansion of Islamic terrorism, the Kazakh president has banned foreign imams from the country, and denied would-be local religious from studying abroad. The country’s Muslim population is made up primarily of ethnic Kazakhs. It is the same case for Lutherans, who are ethnic Germans deported to Kazakhstan during the Soviet era, and Jews.

Given its universal vocation, the Catholic Church is something atypical even if it has always had good relations with the authorities. Most priests and bishops are not Kazakh. Only, Mgr Thomas Peta, of Polish origin, has changed citizenship. Local priests and prelates, about 20, are mostly religious who have gone abroad for reasons associated with the mission. The few Kazakhstan-born priests do not play any major pastoral role. They are not highly regarded and are kept on the sidelines by the Bishops’ Conference, which is made up mostly of Polish-born prelates.

We got to the current situation because relations between the Holy See and the Kazakh government were mishandled. “In 2000, the Vatican and local authorities signed a concordat to guarantee freedom of movement for priests, but no one tried to have turned into law. Thus, even though the agreement provides Catholics with greater freedom, it remains a statement of principle without legal force.”

To overcome such difficulties, the authorities must be made aware of the idea of universality that is contained in the word “Catholic”, the clergyman said. Some bishops oppose this, preferring instead to downplay the scope of the Church in lieu of expressing its true nature.

“Recently, in the Credo the word ‘vselenskaja’, which means universal, was replaced by ‘katoliceskaja’, the adjective that distinguish Catholics from Orthodox. Kazakh public opinion is thus prevented from understanding the supranational aspect of the mission, which is why so many foreign ministers have come to Kazakhstan.” (S.C.)
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