NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan — Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Holy See’s strained relations with China are the backdrop to Pope Francis’ visit this week to the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where he is ministering. ministry to a small Catholic community and participates in an interfaith conference to promote peace and dialogue.
Francis was flying to the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan on Tuesday to meet President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on the state visit portion of the three-day trip. On Wednesday and Thursday, he participates in an interfaith meeting with more than 100 delegations from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Shinto and other religious groups from 50 countries.
The most notable aspects of Francis’ visit might be missed opportunities: Francis was supposed to have met the head of the Russian Orthodox Church on the sidelines of the conference. But Patriarch Kirill, who justified war in Ukraine, canceled his trip last month.
Francis will also be in the Kazakh capital at the same time as Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is making his first foreign visit since the coronavirus pandemic. But the Vatican said there were no plans for Francis to meet Xi, who is not attending the congress. The Holy See and Beijing have not had diplomatic relations for more than half a century and the two sides are in the process of finalizing the renewal of a controversial agreement on appointments of Catholic bishops in China.
Both focus attention on the interfaith conference, an important triennial event for Kazakhstan, a country that borders Russia to the north, China to the east and is home to some 130 ethnic groups. It is a centerpiece of its foreign policy and a reflection of its own multicultural and multi-ethnic population that has long been presented as a crossroads between East and West.
Darhan Qydyrali, Minister of Information and Social Development, said the presence of world religious leaders in the country is fully in Kazakhstan’s national interest. “We invited them and hoped Patriarch Kirill would also attend,” he told The Associated Press on the eve of the convention. “Overall, I think the congress will set an example that other issues can also be resolved through dialogue of religions.”
During the visit of Saint John Paul II in 2001, 10 years after independence, he underlined the diversity of Kazakhstan while recalling its dark past under Stalinist repression: entire villages of ethnic Poles were deported en masse from western Ukraine to Kazakhstan beginning in 1936, and the Soviet government deported hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans, Chechens, and other accused Nazi collaborators to Kazakhstan during World War II. Many descendants of the deportees remained and some of them make up the country’s Catholic community, which numbers only about 125,000 people in a country of nearly 19 million people.
Sophia Gatovskaya, a parishioner at the capital’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral, said she attended that first papal visit and has paid off so far.
“It was really amazing. And after this visit, we have peace and tolerance in our republic. We have many nationalities in Kazakhstan, and we all live together. And we expect the same from this visit (from Pope Francis ) that we will have peace in our republic. And we expect the war in Ukraine to end.
Winfield reported from Vatican City.