Pope Francis in Kazakhstan, Faith in the Steppes| National Catholic Register


NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan — A large but simple white concrete cross overlooks the vast green plains. It is erected on a buttress to remember those who suffered and those who died during the decades of Soviet oppression and hardship. It overlooks a lake and a small village in northern Kazakhstan.

During his three-day visit to the Central Asian country, Pope Francis did not plan to visit this cross, the small village of Ozernoe, or the Marian shrine of Our Lady, Queen of Peace that you can find there. Yet this small island of Christian faith in a vast Muslim country speaks volumes about the small Catholic minority that Pope Francis will encounter.

Here in the north, people remember the persecutions during the Soviet regime, those who did not return from the “re-education” camps and those who died because of their beliefs.

“We are in a place in Kazakhstan where many people suffered from communist totalitarianism. Many were brought to these territories. This cross is erected halfway between Fatima and Hiroshima,” explained Father Mariusz Stawasz, rector of the shrine. For the priest, this carries great symbolism, for there are only two paths humanity could choose. It’s either Hiroshima, which means destruction, he says, or Fatima, which represents conversion, listening to Mary’s call and ultimately choosing peace.

The cross and the shrine also present the hope and faith of the people, who overcame these times of violence and famine. Father Stawasz is certain that “Mary, the Queen of Peace, reigns here and fills our hearts with it”.

The church was built in 1990 and quickly became a place of pilgrimage, especially for young people who meet there every year in August for a youth festival. Today, pilgrims who come here generally have a very specific subject at heart: the war in Ukraine. “He who grants peace is the Lord, and he alone can grant it,” Fr. Stawasz said. “In recent months, no diplomacy, no human treaty has brought true peace because the source of peace is the Lord. And so, we must ask the Lord for peace.

This was one of the objectives pursued by Pope Francis when he accepted his trip to Kazakhstan. From September 13-15, the Holy Father’s 38th Apostolic Journey to attend the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions will first bring him to the capital of the 17 million strong nation.

In the capital of Nur-Sultan, leaders of the world’s religions will gather, bringing more than 130 delegates from 60 countries.

The highlight of the Pope’s visit will be the celebration of Holy Mass in Expo Square on September 14. About 40,000 people are expected. The celebration will also be broadcast live and shown on large screens attached to four of the city’s skyscrapers. The Catholic Church gained a foothold after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and represents around 1% of the population.

Pope Francis said he was looking forward to meeting Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who initially wanted to attend the summit of religious leaders but later canceled his trip. According to CNA, the Russian Orthodox Church will send a delegation to the congress.

Despite the absence of Patriarch Cyril, the meeting will bring together representatives of most of the world’s major religions, represented in Kazakhstan.

Ethnic Kazakhs are predominantly Sunni Muslims, the most practiced religion in the country. According to a 2009 national census, the second most practiced religion is Russian Orthodox Christianity, at over 20%. The country, which has about 250,000 Latin Rite Catholics, according to 2008 statistics, is also home to many immigrants.

Pope Francis erected an apostolic administration for Byzantine Catholics in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, in 2019, pointing to the growing number of Ukrainian Greek Catholics in the country, which some estimates put at around 10,000.

Nur-Sultan is an interesting choice for such a summit. The city, formerly known as Astana, only became the capital in 1997 and is a rising social and economic power in Central Asia.

The “Nazarbaev Center for Development and Interreligious Dialogue” is responsible for organizing the religious summit. Its president, Bulat Sarsenbayev, said the pope’s visit will bring much-needed religious awareness to Kazakhstan and the region.

“We know him as a defender of peace and harmony among peoples,” he explained. “In Kazakhstan, we have a population of over 100 ethnic groups and 18 official religious denominations that are registered, so this is a very important issue for us. It is a matter of national unity and a matter of peaceful existence.

Sarsenbayev is delighted to welcome not only Pope Francis, but also Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the current Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, and Patriarch Theophilus, the head of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and is convinced that hardly anywhere else do you have such important religious leaders sitting together at the same table.

While the majority of Kazakhstan is Muslim, the population notices not only the summit but especially the visit of the Holy Father. For the 1% of the population who are Catholic, this is probably the most important event since the visit of Saint John Paul II in 2001. Metropolitan Archbishop Tomasz Peta of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Nur- Sultan called it historic.

“This visit has great significance both for the Catholic Church, [which] represents in Kazakhstan a small herd, but also for the whole state,” he said.

The Archbishop said the logo and slogan of the Pope’s visit sums it up well: “Messengers of peace and unity.”

“Kazakhstan is a country that has known a lot of suffering,” Bishop Peta said. “After the October Revolution, half of the Kazakh people were exterminated. Of 4 million Kazakhs, only 2 million remained in the country at that time – the rest died of starvation or had to move abroad. If you go to Spassk, near Karaganda, there are dozens of monuments of different nationalities, from Spain to Japan, a land of suffering, an ocean of blood and tears.

Karaganda is the fourth largest city in the country, with half a million inhabitants. He plays an important role in the development of the Church in Kazakhstan. In 1994, the Catholic seminary opened in Karaganda for the training of local clergy. The new rector, Father Ruslan Rakhemberlinov, is the first priest of Kazakh origin and a former student of the seminary. He explained that it is an inter-diocesan institution, serving students from Kazakhstan, Russia, Georgia and Belarus. There were also Armenian students in the past, and this year seminarians from the Greek Catholic Church of Belarus will be present.

“More than 20 priests have graduated from this seminary, including myself. I graduated in 2008,” Fr. Rakhemberlinov said.

For the rector, the seminary represents a great hope for Catholics in Kazakhstan because it is a living testimony to the growth and development of the Church.

Bishop Adelio Dell’Oro of Karaganda accepted.

“In Kazakhstan, there is a beautiful and painful history of the presence of Catholicism. For 70 years, it was mainly grandmothers who communicated the faith to their grandchildren, almost without the presence of priests and sacraments. The number of seminarians reflects that this has clearly changed.

During his visit, Pope Francis will find a small, growing Church in Kazakhstan. Despite their often tragic family histories of deportation and suffering, the faithful have become an integral and important part of society, as the motto of the papal trip suggests: messengers of peace.

Editor’s note: Andreas Thonhauser is EWTN’s Rome bureau chief. EWTN Vatican Office reporters Alexey Gotovskiy and Anthony Johnson produced an on-site broadcast previewing Pope Francis’ September 13-15 trip to Kazakhstan for the EWTN program Vaticanwhich will air on September 11. Gotovskiy and Rudolf Gehrig of CNA Deutsch will also accompany the Holy Father on the papal flight to the Central Asian country.

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