Preview: Pope's Trip to Kazakhstan

VATICAN, Sept 21, 01 ( - Pope John Paul II is traveling to Kazakhstan with a missionary purpose in mind, hoping to bring the message of the Catholic faith to a land marked by religious and ethnic diversity-- and, at the same time, to bring words of peace to a region troubled by conflicts.

Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in central Asia, is a country of 15 million inhabitants. It is a landlocked country, dominated by steppes, in a region the Western visitors still consider remote and exotic. The capital city, Astana, is situated roughly halfway between Dublin and Tokyo.

A slim majority of Kazakhstan's people are Muslim. The largest religious minority is Orthodox. Catholics account for less than 2 percent of the population; most of the Catholics are the descendants of slaves or of prisoners who were deported to the Soviet penal camps in the region.

When he speaks to the people of Kazakhstan, Pope John Paul will use the Russian language. And the first public event of his stay, after a welcoming ceremony at the Astana airport, will be a visit to a monument honoring the memory of the victims of the Soviet regime.

The government of Kazakhstan has made an effort to unify the young county (which gained independence in 1991) by minimizing ethnic differences. In fact the government has undertaken a campaign to "kazakhstanize" the population-- a campaign that is viewed with severe misgivings by the country's Catholic bishops, insofar as it seems likely to cause new problems for ethnic minorities.

However, in deference to the government's wishes, Pope John Paul will remain in the area of Astana throughout his visit. He will not travel to the old capital city, Almaty, located in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the population is heavily influenced by neighboring Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran-- and where Islamic fundamentalism has a powerful sway. Nor will he visit Karaganda, the city with the heaviest Catholic population, where the only Catholic diocese is located. (The remainder of the country is divided into three apostolic administrations.) Karaganda is the site of one of the largest gulags of the Soviet empire, a massive prison camp evoked by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago; today's government is clearly reluctant to have Western visitors at the site.

When he visits the Astana monument to the victims of Communist, Pope John Paul will be remembering, among others, two Ukrainian martyrs whom he beatified in June; Blessed Oleksa Zarytsky and Blessed Mykyta Budka died in Kazakhstan after having been deported there. He will probably also recall a Polish native, Father Wladyslaw Bukowinski, who was deported to Kazakhstan in 1945, freed in 1954, but elected to remain there serving the underground Church until his death in 1974.

The decision by the Pope to deliver his public remarks in Russian-- rather than the official local language, Kazakh, which is related to Turkish-- reflects another dimension of this apostolic voyage. Most Kazakhs can understand Russian well. But moreover, by using that language, the Pope can be certain that his public speeches will be readily available to the people of Russia itself. The Vatican sees this trip as another effort to prepare for an eventual papal voyage to Russia.

Ecumenical relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches of Kazakhstan are generally quite friendly. However, the Orthodox hierarchy is under the patronage of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is distinctly unhappy with the prospect of the papal visit. A spokesman for the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, has complained that once again Pope John Paul is visiting a country "under the canonical jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate," without having first obtained the approval of Patriarch Aleksei II.

The Vatican does not recognize the Russian Orthodox claim of "canonical jurisdiction," and points out that the Pontiff has been formally invited by the Catholic bishops and the country's President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Orthodox Archbishop Alexy of Almaty has indicated that the Pope is welcome, and although he himself is ill, the Orthodox prelate will send a personal representative to greet the Pontiff.

The Muslim leaders of Kazakhstan are also expressing their anxiousness to meet with the Pope. The Grand Mufti of Almaty, Wungar Haj Omirbeg, told the Fides news service: "He is very welcome here," and added that he has encouraged his followers to come out to greet the Pontiff. When the Pope celebrates an outdoor Mass in Astana on September 23, one organizer has predicted, "There will be more Muslims and Christians." Already, organizers report that 90 percent of the request for tickets to papal events have come from Muslim families.

The Catholics among the congregations in Astana will include many pilgrims from other neighboring lands. Groups of pilgrims are expected from the neighboring central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Tadjikstan, and Kirgistan; Bishop Josef Werth will lead a delegation from western Siberia.

The formal schedule for the Pope's visit follows the same general format as that of most other papal voyages. He will meet with government officials, youth groups, cultural leaders, Catholic bishops, and the leaders of other religious denominations. The Pope will also make a special effort to offer hope and confidence to a population that is badly shaken by poverty, disease, and social difficulties. Kazakhstan has the highest incidence of infant mortality in all of the former Soviet republics. Alcohol and drug abuse are commonplace, and the country is a leading export of opium. The economy is stagnant, and emigration is rising.

However, while Kazakhstan has many serious difficulties-- including the presence of a small but growing number of militant Islamic fundamentalists-- neither the Vatican nor the country's Catholic leadership view the Pope's visit as a dangerous one. Despite the heightened tensions brought on by the possibility of American attacks on nearby Afghanistan, most observers see Kazakhstan as more stable than other lands in the region.

Earlier in September, some stories circulated indicating that the government of Kazakhstan was impeding the preparation for the papal visit, and making it difficult for the faithful to obtain tickets to the papal events. But when he arrived in Astana to investigate the situation, Father Bernardo Cervellera-- the director of the Vatican's Fides news agency-- determined that those stories were inaccurate. The government is cooperating with planners, he said. And although there have been reports in the past that Catholic parishes have encountered bureaucratic delays in dealing with government regulators, on this occasion the Kazakhstani government has made every effort to ensure that the Pope's visit will be pleasant and secure.

Bishop Tomasz Peta, the apostolic administrator of Astana, told Fides, "Here the situation is calm. There is no sign of tension either in the government or among the people."

Catholic World News - Feature
21. september 2001

av Webmaster publisert 21.09.2001, sist endret 21.09.2001 - 22:36