08/06/2022, 09.00
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Pope Francis' Eurasia: Journey to Kazakhstan

by Stefano Caprio

Following in the footsteps of John Paul II, Francis is set visit the former Soviet republic from 13 to 15 September to take part in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. His agenda includes a meeting with Kazakh President Tokayev while a second tête-à-tête with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill is a real possibility.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis's apostolic journey to Kazakhstan will take place from 13 to 15 September, which can be deemed historic for various reasons.

Of course, at some level, all papal journeys leave an important imprint on the history of the Church, the societies and peoples who meet the successor of Peter, as well as the whole world, since the Roman pontiff has always been one of its greatest spiritual leaders.

Pope Francis will follow in the path of his predecessor, Saint John Paul II, who visited the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan, then called Astana, in 2001.

The Polish pontiff spent three, very intense days, including a meeting with young people at Eurasia University, before travelling to Armenia where he ended his journey with a joyful Mass at the see of the local Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin.

Francis will meet with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who became the second post-Soviet head of state succeeding his “eternal” predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Tokayev and Francis have already spoken via videoconference in April, when the Kazakh leader invited the pontiff to participate in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which is the formal reason for the visit.

After three years in office, the president of the former Soviet republic is only now stepping out of the shadow cast by the Nazarbayev family that ruled the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the congress will in some way be for him a consecration of incalculable value.

The pope will also meet with the country’s civil authorities, representative of civil society groups, and the diplomatic corps.

The changes taking place in Kazakh society are of interest not only domestically, but also internationally as it can serve as a new model for all the states that emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

The new Kazakh constitution approved in June has elements of openness towards greater participation by the whole of society in the management of public affairs, valuing not only the formal mechanisms of democracy, but also and above all the country’s traditions and popular culture, long stifled by ideological systems and formal principles.

Tokayev insists on the rediscovery of "steppe democracy" through “kurultaj”, i.e. village or local councils, to deal communally with issues in support and in complementarity with formal government bodies and practices.

In an age of strong populist pressures, often skewed towards dictatorial or anarchist forms, Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet Central Asian countries (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) could become a laboratory for new perspectives.

This matters not only to their Caucasian and Asian neighbours, but also to many other societies in the world that are looking for a specific identity, along with sustainable and non-conflictual multiple relations with other peoples and political systems.

In addition to social and political issues, cultural identity is in fact one of the dimensions that Pope Francis will not fail to emphasise, along with religion.

On several occasions, the pontiff has paid close attention to Asia; for example, he unexpectedly appointed as cardinal Mgr Giorgio Marengo, an Italian missionary in Mongolia, whose small flock well represents one of the “peripheries” of the world, heirs to ancient semi-nomadic peoples who ruled no others, but who were often reduced to pawns in superpowers’ “great games”.

Christian Asia is a history of openness and suffering, discovery and persecution, in dialogue with great ancient religions, like Islam and Buddhism, as well as the traditions of India and the Far East. Unlike Africa and the Americas, it was not “colonised” by Christian missionaries.

As she did in Canada, where Francis asked for forgiveness for the excesses of the Church and the Europeans towards Indigenous peoples, the Church in Asia has met proud but not hostile peoples, and must accept the challenge of great spiritual traditions, distant yet not incompatible with the Gospel.

On 14 September, the plenary session of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions will open at the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation with a silent prayer by all the leaders present, including the pope, ending in the afternoon of the following day with the reading of the Final Declaration.

The Congress is in its seventh edition, following a path that began in the late 1990s on the initiative of former President Nazarbayev. On previous occasions, the Holy See sent several high-level representatives, including cardinals and archbishops, who have always recognised the value of this particular forum for interreligious dialogue.

Nazarbayev saw these meetings as a celebration of the spirit of global reconciliation in the post-Cold War world that emerged out of the end of the militant atheism of Soviet ideology.

The “religious renaissance” witnessed at the end of the last century saw Russia rediscover Orthodox Christianity in “harmony” with secular power, as well as the revival of Islamic traditions in Central Asia, also persecuted under atheistic communism, but in less stifling ways than Christianity and other religions, in some way more “compatible” with the socialist ideology and system.

The main concern for post-Soviet Central Asian rulers, who turned the power of the party into that of the ruling family, was to renew with official Islamic practices while avoiding extremism.

Central Asian countries have built mosques that are more sumptuous than those in Arab countries, and presidents have almost always led popular pilgrimages to Makkah, while at the same time ensuring a secular and “ecumenical” version of society.

This has not always worked because of domestic separatist pressures by certain ethnic groups, often motivated by religion, and external pressures from the most aggressive Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The pope will offer the Congress the great recent overtures found in his encyclical Fratelli tutti, translated into Russian on the initiative of the Muslims of Asian Russia, but above all in the historic Document on human fraternity for world peace and living together signed by the Holy See and Al-Azhar, which was approved by the UN General Assembly in December 2020.

The Congress will not only be an exchange between Christianity and Islam, but will offer a constructive and informal forum for dialogue between all religions.

Francis will have the opportunity to meet Catholics at Holy Mass on 14 September, which will be held at the Expo grounds, followed by a meeting with his Jesuit confreres the next morning at the nunciature in Nur-Sultan. A public meeting is scheduled with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians and pastoral workers at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

It will be a real celebration for the region’s Catholic communities, descendants of ethnic Poles and Germans deported during Soviet times, and now committed to building a new and original form of local Catholicism.

Pope Francis might have a second historic meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow; one had been planned and announced before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then postponed because of the ambiguities surrounding the patriarch’s support for the war.

Francis and Kirill, who had already spoken via videoconference after the war started on that fateful 24 February, were supposed to see each other in June in Jerusalem, but their meeting had to be postponed because of the increasingly disastrous conflict. Now the neutral ground of Nur-Sultan could provide an opportunity not to be missed.

For the patriarch of Moscow, a visit to Kazakhstan is more natural than for the pontiff, since the Russian language is still widely spoke, and a substantial Russian and Orthodox ethnic minority calls it home.

Still, despite such closeness, like with Ukraine, tensions simmer in light of certain statements made by President Putin and other Russian leaders who describe Kazakhstan as a “naturally Russian land" almost as much Ukraine itself.

Kazakh President Tokayev has fiercely insisted on his country’s neutrality and independence, going so far as not recognise Russian sovereignty over Crimea and Donbass at a public meeting with Putin himself, at the recent St Petersburg Economic Forum.

If Francis and Kirill do meet, it will not be easy for Francis to preserve good relations with the patriarch, painstakingly rebuilt in the past decade, especially in the wake of their Havana meeting in February 2016.

In recent months, the pontiff has tried to avoid direct criticism of the positions held by the Russian Church, but he could not refrain from telling Kirill not to behave like an “altar boy” of power.

Although the patriarch might try to involve the pope in his world crusade against the moral decay engendered by secularism, the pope will certainly not be the altar boy of warmongering clerical fundamentalism.

Still, it is possible to hope that their meeting will deliver a message of peace that will stop the terrible war between peoples and worlds.


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