Pope Francis keen to visit Kazakhstan in September

Pope Francis has expressed his desire to attend the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan in September this year.

It will be held in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan from Sept 14 to 15 with the theme: “The Role of Leaders of World and Traditional Faiths in the Socio-Spiritual Development of Humanity after the Pandemic”.

According to Mr Matteo Bruni, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, the Pope spoke about this possible journey during a video conversation with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on April 11.

Akorda press service reported the Head of the Catholic Church as saying: “I look forward to this important event from the point of promoting inter-religious dialogue and for the theme of unity to bring countries, which is much needed for the world today.

“We see how diverse and united your country is. This is a basis for stability. We are happy that in Kazakhstan you understand this. You can count on my support, and I appreciate your efforts.”

On his part, Mr Tokayev confirmed the firm commitment of Kazakhstan to the further development of cooperation with the Holy See in the field of inter-religious dialogue and mutual respect, illustrating to the Pope the Kazakh model of inter-religious harmony and unity and highlighting the implementation of recent political and economic reforms.

The invitation to visit Kazakhstan was delivered to Pope Francis on Nov 6 last year when the President of the Senate of Kazakhstan Maulen Ashimbayev visited the Vatican.

Msgr. José Luis Mumbiela Sierra, Bishop of the Holy Trinity in Almaty and President of the Episcopal Conference of Kazakhstan, told Agenzia Fides that the news of the papal visit “fills us with joy”.

“We are grateful to the President of Kazakhstan for inviting Pope Francis and we really hope the visit can take place, 20 years after the visit of Pope John Paul II,” he said. “The fact that the Pope comes among us is a great sign of attention to the Churches in the peripheries. We want to show him the beauty and vitality of the Catholic community in our country and in Central Asia.”

Fr. Guido Trezzani, Director of Caritas Kazakhstan, told Fides: “We are really happy to welcome the Pope among us. It would be a breath of hope and strength.”

Last year, the members of the Secretariat of the Congress postponed the date of the event to 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic situation worldwide.

The last official visit to Kazakhstan by a head of the Roman Catholic Church, John Paul II, took place 21 years ago, on Sept 22, 2001.

The event took place days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, amid the fears of a major war on inter-religious and inter-civilisational grounds and served well to show the world the culture of tolerance and domestic accord within the Kazakh society.

It also played an important role in launching two years later the Congresses of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.

The first Congress in 2003

The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions is held in Nur-Sultan every three years, gathering world religious leaders from across the world.

It was initiated in 2003 by former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on the model of the “Day of Prayer for Peace” convened in Assisi, Italy, by Pope John Paul II on 24 January 2002 in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States. The idea was to reaffirm the positive contribution of religious traditions to dialogue and harmony between peoples and nations.

The Holy See’s support for the initiative

The first forum was attended by 17 delegations from 23 countries and was focused mainly on countering terrorism and religious extremism issues threatening world peace. On that occasion, Pope John Paul II, who had visited Kazakhstan in September 2001, sent a message to participants expressing hope that the initiative might help promote the respect of human dignity and the protection of religious freedom.

To mark the 10th anniversary of that event, a Kazakh official delegation visited the Vatican in 2013. During the visit, it awarded a State decoration to Cardinals Jean-Louis Tauran, and Giovanni Lajolo, former Secretaries for Relations with States, and Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, an official at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, in recognition of the Holy See’s support to this initiative and of its commitment to religious dialogue an peace.

A photographic exhibition was also presented to illustrate the ten-year activity of the Congress, which up until that year had convened four times.

The 6th Congress in 2018

The last Congress (from 10-11 October 2018) was focused on the theme “Religious Leaders for a Safe World” and saw the participation of 82 delegations from 46 countries. The Catholic Church delegation was led by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and included, among others, Msgr. Khaled Akasheh, and Archbishop Francis Assisi Chullikatt, Apostolic Nuncio to Kazakhstan. Among the topics discussed were the relationship between religion and globalization and, again, the role of religious leaders in overcoming extremism and terrorism.

Pope John Paul II’s visit to Kazakhstan in 2001
Pope John Paul the II was the first Pope to visit Kazakhstan, where Muslims account for the majority of the population (70%) and Christians, mostly Orthodox, for some 30%, of which Catholics are 1%.

The motto chosen for that visit was significantly “Love one other” highlighting the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of Kazakh society which the Polish Pope described as a “country open to dialogue and encounter”.

Good relations between Holy See and Kazakhstan
Dialogue has been the focus of the good relations the Catholic Church and the Holy See have entertained with Kazakhstan since 1992, after the nation became independent from the former Soviet Union.

This dialogue is of particular relevance today in the context of the internal political tensions that have gripped Kazakhstan in the past few months and in light of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.

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