The pope goes to the Kazakh interreligious congress, without a patriarch


VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis had hoped his trip to Kazakhstan this week would provide a chance to meet the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church — who has justified war in Ukraine — and plead for peace. Patriarch Cyril bowed out a few weeks ago, but Francis continues his journey, though overshadowed by Russia’s seven-month war.

Francis is traveling to the Muslim-majority former Soviet republic on Tuesday to care for its small Catholic community and participate in a Kazakhstan-sponsored conference of world religious leaders. The conference was originally intended to promote interfaith dialogue in the post-pandemic world, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave it a more immediate cause: for religious leaders around the world to call for peace in a united voice.

“It will be an opportunity to meet as many religious representatives and to dialogue like brothers, animated by the common desire for peace, the peace that our world is thirsting for,” Francis told thousands of people in Saint-Laurent square on Sunday. Rock.

In a way, Kirill’s absence will make life easier for everyone involved: Kazakhstan will not have its showcase gathering of Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Shinto and Jewish leaders from 50 countries overshadowed by a photo op that will the headlines between the pope and the patriarch. Francis will not have the diplomatic headache of having to explain to Ukraine why he met with an ideological supporter of the war from Russia before Francis even visited Kyiv. And Kirill will avoid the embarrassment of being present when a world congress of imams, rabbis, ministers and a pope issues a long-awaited final statement denouncing the war.

But for Kazakhstan’s Catholic leaders, Kirill’s absence represents something of a lost opportunity.

“Personally, I am pained,” said Bishop Adelio Dell’Oro of the Kazakh Diocese of Karaganda. “I think that a meeting between them on the sidelines of the congress would have been a notable, notable contribution in this peace process to clarify what religions can bring to human coexistence in the world. So I’m disappointed, but you have to accept it.

The interfaith congress is 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 multiethnic population. which has long been presented as a crossroads between East and West.

“We can say that Kazakhstan is really a place where dialogue is not a formal slogan, but it is a Kazakh brand,” said Archbishop Piotr Pytlowany, spokesman for the Kazakh Bishops’ Conference. “Kazakhstan wants to share dialogue not only during this congress but also after it, offering dialogue as one of the possible ways to solve the various difficulties the world is currently facing.”

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.

Kazakh bishops had asked Francis to visit a former Soviet detention camp during his three-day visit, but the 85-year-old pope refused due to strained knee ligaments, which required him to use a wheelchair and a walking stick.

His schedule includes time for private meetings with religious leaders attending the convention. Although the Vatican has not released a list, expected attendees include Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo.

A visitor who is not currently on his agenda: Chinese President Xi Jinping, expected in Kazakhstan for his first trip abroad since the coronavirus pandemic. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said there were currently no plans for a meeting and noted that Xi was not attending the religious conference. China and the Holy See have not had diplomatic relations for over half a century.

Francis has repeatedly denounced Russia’s war in Ukraine as unjust “violent aggression,” expressed solidarity with the “martyred” Ukrainian people, and sent personal envoys to Ukraine to provide humanitarian and spiritual aid. At the same time, he refrained from calling Russia or President Vladimir Putin by name, trying to maintain a path of dialogue with Moscow consistent with the Vatican’s diplomatic tradition of not taking sides in a conflict.

Kirill justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on spiritual and ideological grounds, calling it a “metaphysical” battle with the West. He blessed Russian soldiers in battle and invoked the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.

The Kazakh congress would have provided a neutral venue and a chance excuse for their second meeting, and Kirill and Francis had initially confirmed their attendance. But Kirill stepped down last month. A former Vatican ambassador to Moscow suggested grumbling within the Russian Orthodox hierarchy may have factored into Kirill’s decision.

Maybe they saw the writing on the wall. Just last week the general assembly of the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of more than 350 churches representing more than half a billion Christians worldwide, denounced what it called an invasion “illegal and unjustifiable” and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops. from Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which is a WCC member, refused to vote for the ‘politicized’ statement and complained about what it called ‘unprecedented pressure’ on members to condemn Moscow and the Church Russian.

Kazakhstan, for its part, had to walk a thin line with the war. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has pledged to respect Western sanctions against Russia while trying to maintain close ties with Moscow, an important economic partner and ally. At the same time, Tokayev refused to recognize the Russian-backed separatist “people’s republics” in Ukraine, which Moscow recognized days before invading Ukraine.

While Kazakhstan could have become the mediator if Francis and Kirill had met, “maybe it’s even better that it didn’t happen because Kazakhstan would have looked like a country getting involved in the Ukraine crisis. , and that’s the last thing Kazakhstan wants to do now,” said Temur Umarov, a Central Asia expert and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Manenkov reported from Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

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