ASTANA, Kazakhstan—Pope John Paul II Sept. 23 appealed to Christians and Muslims to work together for peace in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States blamed on Islamic fundamentalists. He warned against using religion “as a reason for conflict.”
The Holy Father made the appeal at the end of an outdoor Mass in the Kazakh capital of Astana, which was attended by thousands of Orthodox and Muslims as well as members of the small Christian minorities in Kazakhstan and neighboring Central Asian countries.
“From this city, from Kazakhstan, a country that is an example of harmony between men and women of different origins and beliefs, I wish to make an earnest call to everyone, Christians and followers of other religions, to work together to build a world without violence, a world that loves life and grows in justice and solidarity,” the Pope said.
Referring to the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center in NewYork and the Pentagon outside Washington by hijacked airliners, John Paul said, “We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions. Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict.
“From this place, I invite both Christians and Muslims to raise an intense prayer to the one, almighty God whose children we all are, that the supreme good of peace may reign in the world,” he said.
Dismissing fears of a U.S. reprisal raid on alleged terrorist training grounds in Afghanistan, located to the south of Kazakhstan, the Pope flew to Astana Sept. 22 on a six-day trip that also will take him to Armenia in the Caucasus.
John Paul presided over the Mass in Russian, but he delivered his appeal for peace in English in an apparent effort to speak directly to the Western world.
“May people everywhere, strengthened by divine wisdom, work for a civilization of love in which there is no room for hatred, discrimination or violence,” he said. “With all my heart I beg God to keep the world in peace.”
The Pope concelebrated the Mass with scores of bishops and priests from Kazakhstan and Rome. Kazakh President Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev and representatives of Grand Mufti Absattar Derbassaliev, leader of Kazakhstan's 8 million Sunni Muslim majority, headed official delegations.
In his homily, John Paul stressed the need for cooperation among members of different religions and those with no religion.
“Respect for each one's rights, even when that person has different personal beliefs, is the foundation of all truly human harmony,” he said.
John Paul recalled the suffering of Kazakhs under 70 years of communism and of the hundreds of thousands of Russians, Poles, Ukrainians and ethnic Germans from Russia's Volga region deported to 11 gulags in Kazakhstan by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
The Catholic deportees formed the nucleus of the country's 360,000 member Catholic community, led by Bishop Tomasz Peta, who serves as apostolic administrator. Orthodox Christians number 6 million.
“In this celebration we want to pray for Kazakhstan and its inhabitants so that this vast nation with all its ethnic, cultural and religious variety will grow stronger in justice, solidarity and peace,” the Pope said.
“May it progress on the basis in particular of cooperation between Christians and Muslims, committed day by day, side by side in the effort to fulfill God's will,” John Paul said.
The Holy Father met over lunch in the apostolic administrator's residence with four Roman Catholic bishops from Kazakhstan, four from the nearby republics of Kyrgystan, Tagikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and the apostolic visitor for Eastern Rite Catholics in Central Asia.
Speaking in Russian, he said the experiences of the small Christian communities of Central Asia reminded him of the parable in the Gospel of Matthew “of the leaven which causes the dough to rise.”
“The leaven seems insignificant, but it has the power to transform the whole loaf,” he said.
John Paul urged “fraternal communion” among Roman Catholic priests and dialogue with other Christians, Muslims and non-believers and called for “a courageous missionary impulse” to combat capitalist materialism.
“The long winter of communist domination with its claim to eradicate God from the human heart often reduced the spiritual content of these peoples' cultures,” he said. “For this reason there is a scarcity of ideals which makes people particularly vulnerable to the myths of consumerism and hedonism imported from the West.”
On Sept. 24, the Holy Father denounced the “hatred, fanaticism and terrorism'” that led alleged Muslim fundamentalists to attack the United States but said the Roman Catholic Church has nothing but respect for “authentic Islam.”
Addressing representatives of culture, art and science in predominantly Muslim Kazakhstan, the Pope called on all believers to join in “efforts to ensure that God is never made the hostage of human ambitions.”
Led by the Holy Father, the Vatican has sought to differentiate between fanatics acting in the name of Islam and the religion itself.
“Precisely here in this land of encounter and dialogue and before this distinguished audience, I wish to reaffirm the Catholic church's respect for Islam, for authentic Islam: the Islam that prays, that is concerned for those in need,” he said at a meeting in Astana's Palace of Congresses.
“Recalling the errors of the past, including the most recent past, all believers ought to unite their efforts to ensure that God is never made the hostage of human ambitions,” the Pope said. “Hatred, fanaticism and terrorism profane the name of God and disfigure the true image of man.”
The Holy Father described himself as “a humble and convinced witness” to Christ “the redeemer of man and the savior of the world.” But he said he nevertheless feels “full respect for the search which other people of good will are engaged in along different paths.
“I wish to assure you,” he told the Kazakhs, “of the real cooperation and the sincere prayers of the Pope and of the whole Catholic church to the almighty and most high God that Kazakhstan, faithful to its native Eusasian vocation, will continue to be a land of encounter and acceptance in which men and women of the two great continents will be able to live long days of prosperity and peace.”
Will He Be Heard?
“Sometimes, there are little conflicts and fights but it has nothing to do with [Islamic] fundamentalism,” said Marat Sharipov, a Muslim who owns a restaurant in Astana, as he waited for the Mass to start Sunday morning. “More often than not, it has to do with drunkenness.”
Sharipov said that the people of Kazakhstan understand what is at stake if war in Afghanistan ignites a regional conflict pitting Muslim against Christian.
“We know well that a war would burn us all up,” said Sharipov, a dapper man whose composure broke when asked his opinion about the crisis looming over Central Asia.
“I don't understand those Americans. They live over there beyond the ocean. But they will come, stir up a storm and then leave us in a few months like they did in Iraq. They will leave behind refugees, disease. ... We don't need this. We are just getting on our feet.”
Standing a few feet in front of Sharipov, stamping their feet to stay warm in the cold, was a group of Americans, among them Judy McNulty of the U.S.-based CARE International, an aid worker who lives in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. She said the mood in the capital of the former Soviet republic perched on the top of Afghanistan was “pretty tense”—with Westerners ready to evacuate quickly.
Asked about the significance of the Pope's visit to the region, she said, “It might put people more at ease. I just hope his message is strong enough to reach Western leaders, to reach America and Europe.”
Frank Brown reported from Astana, Peggy Polk from Vatican City.