Papal Trip Preview: Pope Francis in Kazakhstan, Faith on the Steppes

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the predominantly Muslim Asian country Sept. 13-15.

Clockwise from left: A cross on a hillside and the Marian shrine of Our Lady, Queen of Peace, are beacons of hope and peace. Metropolitan Archbishop Tomasz Peta of the Archdiocese of St. Mary in Nur-Sultan is shown giving a blessing.
Clockwise from left: A cross on a hillside and the Marian shrine of Our Lady, Queen of Peace, are beacons of hope and peace. Metropolitan Archbishop Tomasz Peta of the Archdiocese of St. Mary in Nur-Sultan is shown giving a blessing. (photo: EWTN photos)

NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan — A large yet simple, white concrete cross overlooks the vast green plains. It is erected on a foothill to remember those who suffered and those who died during the decades of Soviet oppression and hardship. It towers over a lake and a small village in the north of Kazakhstan. 

During his three-day visit to the Central Asian country, Pope Francis is not scheduled to visit this cross, the little village of Ozernoe, or the Marian shrine of Our Lady, Queen of Peace one can find there. Yet this little island of Christian faith in a vast, Muslim country tells a lot about the small Catholic minority Pope Francis will encounter. 

Here in the north, people remember the persecution during the times of the Soviet regime, those who did not come back from the “reeducation” camps, and those who died because of their convictions. 

“We are in a place in Kazakhstan where a lot of people suffered from communist totalitarianism. Many were brought to these territories. This cross is erected about halfway between Fatima and Hiroshima,” explained Father Mariusz Stawasz, rector of the shrine. For the priest, this bears great symbolism, as there are only two paths humanity could choose. It is either Hiroshima, which means destruction, he said, or it is Fatima, which represents conversion, through listening to Mary’s call and ultimately choosing peace. 

The cross and the shrine also present the hope and faith of the people, who overcame those times of violence and famine. Father Stawasz is certain that “Mary, the Queen of Peace, reigns here and fills our hearts with it.” 

The church was built in 1990 and soon became a place of pilgrimage, especially for young people who gather here every year in August for a youth festival. Today, the pilgrims who come here usually have a very specific topic at heart: the war in Ukraine. “The giver of peace is the Lord, and only he may bestow it,” said Father Stawasz. “In these last months, no diplomacy, no human treaties brought real peace because the source of peace is the Lord. And so, we must ask the Lord for peace.” 

This was one of the goals Pope Francis pursued when agreeing to his trip to Kazakhstan. From Sept. 13 to 15, the Holy Father’s 38th apostolic journey to attend the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions will bring him first to the capital of the 17-million-strong nation. 

In the capital of Nur-Sultan, leaders from the world’s religions will gather, bringing more than 130 delegates from 60 countries. 

The highlight of the Pope’s visit will be the celebration of the Holy Mass at the Expo Square Sept. 14. An estimated 40,000 people are expected to attend. The celebration will also be broadcast live and shown on big screens attached to four of the city’s skyscrapers. The Catholic Church gained a toehold after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and represents about 1% of the population.

Pope Francis said that he was looking forward to meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who at first wanted to participate in the religious-leaders summit but then canceled his travel. According to CNA, the Russian Orthodox Church will send a delegation to the congress.

Despite the absence of Patriarch Kirill, the meeting will still bring together representatives of most of the world’s major religions, which are represented in Kazakhstan. 

Ethnic Kazakhs are predominantly Sunni Muslims, the most commonly practiced religion in the country. According to a 2009 national census, the second-most-practiced religion is Russian Orthodox Christianity, at more than 20%. The country, which has approximately 250,000 Latin Rite Catholics, according to 2008 statistics, is also home to many immigrants.

Pope Francis erected an apostolic administration for Byzantine Catholics in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, in 2019, highlighting the growing number of Ukrainian Greek Catholics in the country, which some estimates put at around 10,000.

Nur-Sultan is an interesting choice for such a summit. The city, formerly known as Astana, became the capital only in 1997 and is a rising social and economic power in Central Asia. 

Responsible for the organization of the religious summit is the “Nazarbaev Center for Development and Interfaith Dialogue.” Its chairman, Bulat Sarsenbayev, said the Pope’s visit will bring much needed religious awareness to Kazakhstan and the region. 

“We know him as an advocate for peace and harmony between people,” he explained. “In Kazakhstan we have a population of more than 100 ethnic groups, and 18 official religious confessions that are registered, so it’s a very important issue for us. It is a question of unity of the nation and a question of peaceful existence.”

Sarsenbayev looks forward to hosting not only Pope Francis but also Sheikh  Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the current grand imam of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, and Patriarch Theophilus, the head of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and is convinced that hardly anywhere else you have such important leaders of faith sitting together at one table. 

While the majority of Kazakhstan is Muslim, the population still takes notice not only of the summit but particularly of the Holy Father’s visit. For the 1% of the population that is Catholic, it is probably the most important event since St. John Paul II visited in 2001. Metropolitan Archbishop Tomasz Peta of the Archdiocese of St. Mary in Nur-Sultan called it historic.

“This visit has great significance both for the Catholic Church, [which] represents in Kazakhstan a small flock, but also for the whole state,” he said.

The archbishop said the logo and slogan for the Pope’s visit sum it up well: “Messengers of Peace and Unity.”

“Kazakhstan is a country that experienced a lot of suffering,” Archbishop Peta said. “After the October Revolution, half of the Kazakh people were exterminated. From 4 million Kazakhs, only 2 million remained in the country at that time — the rest died of starvation or had to move somewhere abroad. If you go to the Spassk, near Karaganda, there are dozens of monuments of different nationalities, from Spain to Japan — a land of suffering, an ocean of blood and tears.” 

Karaganda is the fourth-biggest city of the country, with half a million inhabitants. It plays an important role for the development of the Church in Kazakhstan. In 1994, the Catholic seminary opened in Karaganda for the formation of local clergy. The new rector, Father Ruslan Rakhemberlinov, is the first priest of Kazakh ethnicity and an alumnus of the seminary. He explained that it is an interdiocesan institution, serving students from Kazakhstan, Russia, Georgia and Belarus. There were also Armenian students in the past, and this year seminarians from the Belarus Greek Catholic Church will attend. 

“More than 20 priests have graduated from this seminary, including myself. I graduated in 2008,” Father Rakhemberlinov said. 

To the rector, the seminary means great hope for the Catholics of Kazakhstan because it is a living testimony to the growth and development of the Church. 

Bishop Adelio Dell’Oro of Karaganda agreed.

“In Kazakhstan there is a painful and beautiful history of the presence of Catholicism. For 70 years, mainly grandmothers communicated the faith to their grandchildren, with almost no presence of priests and sacraments.” The number of seminarians reflects that this has clearly changed.

During his visit, Pope Francis will find a small but growing Church in Kazakhstan. Despite their often-tragic family stories of deportation and suffering, the faithful have become an important, integral part of society, just as the motto of the papal trip suggests: messengers of peace.

Editor’s Note: Andreas Thonhauser is the EWTN Rome bureau chief. EWTN Vatican Bureau journalists Alexey Gotovskiy and Anthony Johnson produced a show on location previewing Pope Francis’ Sept. 13-15 trip to Kazakhstan for the EWTN program Vaticano, which will air on Sept. 11. Gotovskiy and Rudolf Gehrig of CNA Deutsch will also accompany the Holy Father on the papal flight to the Central Asian country.