Kazakhstan: A Stew That's Beginning to Boil Over

Interview with an Organizer of the Papal Trip

ASTANA, Kazakhstan, SEPT. 19, 2001 (Zenit.org-Fides).- Joseph Stalin's deportations last century helped turn Kazakhstan into a mosaic of ethnic groups and cultures.

When John Paul II arrives to this one-time Soviet republic on Saturday, his message will be simple: Coexistence between religions and ethnic groups is possible.

The republic's 16 million people include Muslims (the majority), Orthodox, Protestants and Catholics. Ethnically they are Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, Germans and Poles, among others.

In this interview, Italian Father Edoardo Canetta, 51, a missionary in Kazakhstan for the past 10 years, and member of the Papal Trip Preparation Committee, explains the republic's situation.

--Q: Ten years ago, following the Soviet regime, the Catholic Church was reborn in the country. How does the Church evangelize in these lands?

--Father Canetta: There has always been traditional pastoral care, mainly for immigrants - or perhaps we should say, deportees.

Now, there is less request for this type of ministry since many of the Germans, Ukrainians/Russians and Poles have left. Currently the Polish government offers to pay expenses incurred by Poles who decide to return to their own country. This has led to a sort of emigration frenzy which is not a good sign.

In some areas, Church communities, comprising mainly families of former deportees, are in danger of disappearing altogether. This is why together, with traditional pastoral care, missionary work is also necessary.

Q: Why do the people decide to leave?

Father Canetta: This tendency is due, I think, not only to the poor situation of the Kazakh economy. Kazakhstan has a crisis, but things are improving.

A more sensitive question is an ethnic problem which is beginning to appear. In Kazakhstan, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kazakhs were about 32% of the population. With the return home of Germans, Poles and Russians, Kazakhs today are 53% of the population and they hold 80% or 90% of positions of political power.

Laws regarding language result mathematically in the reserving of 70% of jobs at universities or in the police force for people who speak Kazakh. In actual fact, the law reserves 50% of jobs for Kazakh speakers and the other 50% for Russian speakers, but the majority are still Kazakhs.

This explains the ethnic unbalance in government posts. On the other hand, if the different groups - Germans, Russians, Poles, etc. - are content to speak Russian and make no effort to learn Kazakh, they are bound to be excluded!

Last year, Russian President Putin visited Kazakhstan's Eurasia University in Karaganda, and on that occasion he said in public, in front of President Nazarbajev: "My Russian friends living here tell me that they find it hard to live with Kazakhs and so they are leaving."

This was a serious statement that is a threat to the future of peaceful coexistence and also the presence of the Catholic Church. I suspect that the Polish government's measures to facilitate the return home of their compatriots is also due to fear of ethnic conflict.

Q: Are there signs of such conflict?

Father Canetta: For the moment, the contrast is noted in economic activities.

In the past, Russian and Kazakh businesses competed at the same level. Today, Kazakh enterprises are privileged. On the other hand "white" immigrants still consider themselves colonialists: They make no effort to learn the local language, they look down on Kazakhs.

It should be said that at least 99% of the Catholics are "white" immigrants - Poles, Germans, Ukrainians. There is also a group of Korean Catholics, but as they are without a priest of their language, many are drawn to Protestant sects which, on the contrary, are supplied with dozens of ministers on the spot. Not many Kazakhs are Catholic.

Until recently, missionary work among the Kazakhs was not even thought of. For many Catholics here, religion still coincides with nationality. Although among mature Christians there is a desire to help everyone encounter Christ, Soviet traditions closed them in ethnic-religious ghettos.

Q: Is there any ad gentes mission activity at all?

Father Canetta: Most of this happens by chance. For example, people may hear about Jesus Christ when coming together with neighbors or friends, or meeting a priest on a train or a bus.

There are other fields of encounter, for example, the university where I myself work, and then in prisons and factories. We have a few small groups of people who attend weekly catechism sessions.

Q: What challenges face the Catholic community here?

Father Canetta: The main challenge, which we hope will be facilitated by the Holy Father's visit, is for Catholics to obtain full recognition, rights and dignity, equal to the Muslim and Orthodox majority groups.

In Kazakhstan today there is pressure from various sides. On one side, Muslim fundamentalism, supported by Afghanistan, is gaining ground; on the other, the Patriarchate of Moscow is pushing to have the Orthodox community here recognized as the only representative of all Christian communities.

The Muslims claim that Islam is Kazakhstan's only original religion; the Orthodox say they are the only true Christians. But, in actual fact, the history of Catholics is older than either that of the Muslims or the Orthodox. Traces of the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan can be found as early as the third century.

Our position is somewhat peculiar: We refuse to be listed as one of the many sects; we are not recognized as equal to the Orthodox Church here. At the moment, we have a sort of "special status," guaranteed by an agreement between the Holy See and the government of Kazakhstan.

But while we demand that others recognize that Catholics have equal cultural, historical and social dignity, we must do our part and become more familiar with Kazakh culture.

Until now, Russian laws regarding religious freedom, registration, control, annual revision, and even three monthly visas for Catholic missionaries, have not affected Kazakhstan. Laws here are secular and liberal. But recently, pressured by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, the government is considering introducing stricter regulations.

Q: What about Catholic-Muslim relations?

With regard to Islam it should be said that Kazakh Islam, influenced by Sufism, is not lived very intensely. There are Muslims who are not even clear about the meaning of certain religious feast days.

Fundamentalist pressure creeping in from the south is pressing for a revision. The new grand mufti, Absattar Derbassaliev, former pro-rector of Kazakhstan's important Al Farabi University, has said, "Kazakh Islam is finished; it is time to return to the Arab roots of Islam." But in this way he is going against the people and against Kazakh tradition.

The grand mufti, who spent several years in Saudi Arabia as cultural attaché, has also declared that the memorial in Turkestan, southern Kazakhstan, which for Kazakh Muslims has always been a traditional place of pilgrimage, cannot be seen as the "new Mecca"; he insists on banning alcohol, whereas Kazakhs are great drinkers; he wants all paintings and images - much loved by Kazakh culture - removed.

Lastly, he wants the national spring festival Nauriz, of Zoroastrian origin, abolished on the grounds that it is a "pagan" feast. Many Kazakhs are rejecting this type of Islam: "We prefer to live as Kazakhs, rather than as the imam demand."

Recently, members of the Kazakh Ministry of Culture, who studied in Pakistan, stated that although they remain "Muslims in spirit" they will no longer profess Islam in public or keep the annual Ramadan fast. This points to incipient conflict between Islam and Kazakh culture.

Catholic World News Service - Daily News Briefs
19. september 2001

av Webmaster publisert 20.09.2001, sist endret 20.09.2001 - 18:36