Pope Francis will visit Kazakhstan from September 13 to 15, 2022, Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, announced in a statement on August 1. The pontiff will participate in the “7th Congress of World Leaders and Traditional Religions” organized by the government of Kazakhstan to be held in the capital Nur-Sultan.
Maulen Ashinbayev, the president of the Kazakh Senate, had sent an invitation to Pope Francis to participate in this summit on November 6, 2021 during an audience at the Vatican. The pontiff had first expressed his wish to visit Kazakhstan on September 11, 2022, during a video conference with the country’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
A predominantly Muslim country (with most adherents following Sunni Islam), Kazakhstan has a large Christian community which comprises more than 20% of the population. Kazakh Christians are mainly Orthodox, following the Moscow Patriarchate and the Eastern Orthodox Church of Kazakhstan. A Catholic minority makes up around 2% of the population.
Three days ago, on the plane returning from Canada, Pope Francis said he wanted to visit Kazakhstan, referring to “a quiet trip, without much travel.” This may be the first time that a pope participates in this interreligious meeting, but it will not be the first time that a pope will set foot on the soil of the former Soviet Republic: John Paul II visited the nation for two days in September 2001.
The question of Kirill’s participation
Although it was translated into Russian – one of the country’s two official languages along with Kazakh – the announcement of the Pope’s trip did not mention Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow. Pope Francis has publicly stated that he hopes to meet him on this occasion, notably in an interview with Reuters on July 2.
Because of Patriarch Kirill’s unqualified support for the war in Ukraine, the rapprochement in recent years between the Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate, including a meeting between their two leaders in Cuba in 2016, has become more complex.
The pontiff had to abandon a meeting with the patriarch in Jerusalem in June. He then said he wanted to visit Kiev and Moscow; while Ukraine wants to host the pope, the Moscow authorities have so far not opened any doors to a trip on Russian soil.
For the time being, the Moscow Patriarchate and the organizers of the Nur-Sultan summit have not communicated on a possible participation of the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Commenting on the possibility of a meeting between the two men in Kazakhstan on July 8, the head of Vatican diplomacy, Archbishop Paul-Richard Gallagher, said: “We must try to overcome the difficulties and misunderstandings for the unity of the Church.”
A summit for interreligious dialogue
Launched in 2003 by former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, these congresses, which bring together heads of state, political representatives and leaders of all religions, aim to “search for common human reference points in the world and traditional forms of religion” and at the same time see themselves as a “permanent international interfaith institution for dialogue between religions and the adoption of concerted decisions”.
Representatives of all the world’s major religions – including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism – are expected to attend the event in mid-September. In the past, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon or the King of Jordan Abdullah II have participated in this summit.
In a previous summit, in 2018, the Vatican was represented by the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmiero. Also present was the coordinator in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic association very much involved in interreligious dialogue.