World Tensions Color Papal Trip to Kazakhstan

ASTANA, Kazakhstan, Sep 24, 01 ( - After he celebrated Mass in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan on Sunday, Pope John Paul II made a last-minute change to his prepared text, adding an impassioned appeal for world peace. Speaking with obvious emotion, in a clear reference to the terror attack against the United States and the prospect of American military responses, the Holy Father said: "With all my heart, I implore God to preserve peace in the world."

The Pope made his remark during an Angelus audience, immediately after Mass in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan. He asked his listeners-- most of them Muslims-- to recognize that both Christianity and Islam acknowledge the sovereignty of "one almighty God, of whom we are all children." He argued energetically against the notion that Christians and Muslims could confront each other in a global religious conflict.

The papal Mass on Sunday drew a congregation estimated at 40,000-- possibly the largest crowd ever to assemble for one event in Kazakhstan's history. Among those on hand were the country's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and representatives of both the Orthodox Metropolitan Alexei and the Grand Mufti of Astana. The ceremony took place outdoors, with the altar protected by a large shelter in the shape of the traditional Kazak tent, known as a yurt.

Organizers estimate that as many as 75 percent of those in attendance at the Sunday Mass were Muslims. Islamic leaders had urged their followers to make the Pope welcome in Kazakhstan, where Muslims constitute a bare majority in an ethnically diverse population.

Pope John Paul arrived in Astana on Saturday, and was greeted at the city's airport by President Nazarbayev. For the first time in recent years, the traveling party for the papal voyage did not include the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Vatican officials explained that, because of the international tensions created by last week's terror attack, the Pope had wanted Cardinal Sodano to remain in Rome, so that the could be continually informed of all the most recent developments.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls assured reporters that the Pope "is keeping very much up to date on the situation." The Pope had decided to add to his prepared text, Navarro-Valls said, after hearing reports about the many refugees seeking to leave Afghanistan because of fears of an American attack on that country.

Here in central Asia, the Pope "is taking advantage of his visit to a country where the communities live together under good conditions, to show the world that Christians and Muslims can all pray for peace and in fact they can come together for that purpose," Navarro-Valls said. The Pope had delivered that message forcefully by remarking that "religions must never be used as reasons for violence."

During the welcoming ceremony he arrived in Kazakhstan on Saturday, September 22, John Paul made several references to the recent history of the former Soviet republic in his opening remarks. He observed that since attaining independence 10 years ago, Kazakhstan has made several deliberate steps to heal the wounds caused by Communist oppression. He noted with approval the young country's decision to reject nuclear weapons and processing plants, and the clear government commitment to foster harmony across ethnic and religious boundaries. The new government, John Paul said, must remain based "on the protection of freedom, the inalienable right and profound aspiration of every person." And the first public event on the Pope's schedule during his stay to Astana was a visit to a shrine honoring the victims of Communism.

President Nazarbayev voiced his appreciation for the papal message when he welcomed his visitor, thanked him for his leadership role in bringing down the Soviet empire, and assured him that today: "Kazakhstan is opposed to terrorism." Although the country has been troubled by some Islamic separatist groups-- particularly in the southern sections of the land, near the border of Uzbekistan-- the Kazak leader emphasized that his government does not and would not support terrorist groups. He also announced, after a private talk with the Pontiff, that his government would welcome refugees from Afghanistan, if they can find their way across the intervening countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to reach the Kazakhstan borders.

Although its geography is isolated, landlocked and mountainous, and its population is not relatively small (about 15 million), Kazakhstan is one of the world's largest countries in terms of landmass. The Pope acknowledged that fact, and the enormous diversity of the land and its peoples, as he spoke with cultural leaders in Astana on Monday night. Once again the Pontiff placed heavy emphasis on the need for dialogue, mutual respect, and a shared commitment to peace and freedom.

The isolation and the sheer size of Kazakhstan again entered into discussion when the Pope spoke with the nation's Catholic bishops. After urging the prelates to preserve the unity among themselves and among the faithful, he added: "Although you are geographically far away, you are in the heart of the Pope, who appreciates your untiring apostolate."

At a visit to Eurasian University on Sunday night, the Pope urged young people to be careful that the violence of Communist ideology is not replaced by the "no less destructive violence of nothingness." Clearly delighted to be among young people-- as he always is-- John Paul heard a young convert to the Catholic faith suggest that his visit might help the people of Kazakhstan to discover "the loving face of the mystery" that is Jesus Christ.

On Monday morning the Pope celebrated Mass with the priests and religious of Kazakhstan, as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He urged them to build up the Catholic Church in their country, emphasizing that this task involved much more than the erection of church buildings. Noticing that the 2-year-old cathedral was filled, he exhorted them to bring more souls into the Catholic fold.

The Pope's address to the local clergy was delivered in Polish, in recognition of the fact that many local Catholics speak Polish and other languages in addition to-- or even instead of-- the local tongue, Kazak. The Catholic population of the young country is made up largely of believers from other parts of the former Soviet Union, who were deported to this region to serve prison terms in the labor camps of Kazakhstan. Many of those who were deported-- including some priests-- elected to remain and live in the country. The public portion of the Pope's trip to Kazakhstan ended on Monday night with a concert, at which the Pontiff was repeatedly interrupted with warm applause when he rose to speak. "Thank you for having opened your heart to me," he said.

On Tuesday morning, Pope John Paul will celebrate Mass in private at the residence of the papal nuncio in Astana, then head immediately for the airport. After a short ceremony there, he will fly to Armenia to continue the 95th foreign voyage of his pontificate.

CWN - Catholic World News
24. september 2001

av Webmaster publisert 26.09.2001, sist endret 26.09.2001 - 16:12