Kazakhstan, in the heart of Central Asia, is a mosaic of peoples: of ethnic groups, languages and religions. A cultural maelstrom that has managed to preserve and promote concord through a history forged on the shores of the Silk Road, of nomadic tribes and the reception of deportees during the Soviet regime.
Kazakhstan, after its independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, is today a sovereign country of immense steppes, multiple mineral resources, a small population (barely 19 million inhabitants) for the enormous extension that makes it the ninth largest country in the world (2,750,000 square kilometers: five times larger than Spain). It is also the country chosen by Pope Francis for his next trip, on the occasion of the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religionswhich will be held in Nur-Sultan, the young capital of the country, on September 14 and 15, 2022.
The Pope’s trip, the second that a Roman pontiff makes to the country (and John Paul II visited in 2001) will also be an opportunity to meet with the young church that is growing in the country. A Church with a broken and uneven history, but that goes back many centuries, to the point of being considered one of the traditional religions in the country.
The first probable presence dates back to the end of ancient times (3rd century), as a result of commercial and cultural movements caused by the Silk Road. Several centuries later, Franciscan and Dominican missionaries, taking advantage of the heyday of the Silk Road, arrived in these lands in the 13th century: they cared for Christians who had kept the faith, propagated the Gospel, and built monasteries. The fury of Genghis Khan, owner and lord of the steppes in those years, nevertheless granted a certain religious tolerance to the peoples he conquered. These are years of conversions and the first diplomatic relations between the Holy See, Genghis Khan and other rulers of the Central Asian States, even establishing a certain canonical structure: the first known bishop in the area is from 1278. However, in In those years of intense Islamic growth, the hordes of Khan Ali overthrew the previous rulers, destroyed the Almalik monastery in 1342, and martyred the Franciscan Bishop Richard of Burgundy, along with five other Franciscans and a Latin merchant (all of whom are now in process of being martyred). of beatification).
Again, Tertullian’s old adage that says “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians” it is fulfilled again, although it has been necessary to wait for several centuries: until the middle of the 20th century. Ironically, the providential instrument for that seed to bear fruit was Josef Stalin, and his deportation orders, which populated the desert steppes with groups of Europeans, often Catholics: Poles, Germans, Ukrainians or Lithuanians… Some of those first deportees died trying master the harsh climatic conditions of the area. But others survived and went on to name these lands their homeland, thanks also to the hospitality and compassion of the original inhabitants of this area: the Kazakhs. During the Stalinist era, and even putting their safety at risk, many of these Kazakhs fed or sheltered the deportees, sharing their same fate.
With the dissolution of the USSR, modern Kazakhstan achieved independence in 1991, and established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1992. Then began a time of freedom for the faithful of various confessions. Little by little, that Church that arose from a thousand difficulties and that brought together so many nationalities, was able to structure its work and the attention of the Catholics scattered throughout the immense extension of the country. Today there are three dioceses: that of Santa Maria, in Astana, that of the Holy Trinity in Almaty, and the diocese of Karaganda. There is also an Apostolic Administration in the West of the country, in Atyrau. There are 108 churches throughout the country, serving a total of approximately 182,000 Catholics: around 1% of the population. It is therefore the second Christian minority, after the Orthodox Church, in a country with a Muslim majority. Although Catholics often belong to families with European roots (Poles, Germans, Ukrainians or Lithuanians), little by little the Church takes root in these lands to the rhythm of the conversion of people of various ethnic groups (also Kazakhs). Every Easter it is common to attend baptisms in the main cathedrals of the country.
Reasons for optimism
Although the numbers are small, the reasons for hope of this young Church are multiple: relations with the country’s government are cordial and seek collaboration in the field of peace building. The Catholic Church has been present in each of the editions of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, promoted by the country’s first president, Nursultan Nazarvayev, in 2003. As has been underlined since the beginning of modern Kazakhstan, in 1991, one of the guarantees of peace in the country has been precisely religious harmony and mutual respect between creeds. Coexistence and common work with other confessions, in fields such as assistance to the family institution, ecumenical dialogue and education in values is one of the guarantees to avoid drifting towards radical Islam.
In the three dioceses and the Apostolic Administration, of gigantic extensions, there is a calm but measured growth: new churches are opened and there are baptisms every year, thanks to the often self-sacrificing work of diocesan priests from various countries of Europe, Latin America and Asia. The religious orders present in the country guarantee a nucleus of vocational diversity, which facilitates the growth of local vocations throughout the country. The twinning with the Greek Catholic community is also particularly close, as a clear sign of communion in a mission area and periphery like this.
In Karaganda, a city in the center of the country, the Central Asian Seminary is located, with candidates for the priesthood coming from all over the area, such as Armenia, Georgia and other countries. In that same city, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Fátima, consecrated in 2012, remembers the victims of what was one of the biggest centers of persecution of the communist regime, the “Karlag” correctional complex (for its acronym “KARagandinskiy LAGer-detention camp”). Karaganda”) in which Catholic priests and laity suffered and died, as well as faithful of other religious confessions. The cathedral is thus considered a center of reconciliation and dissemination of spirituality and culture, also facilitated by concerts of the magnificent organ installed there (an especially lucid way of disseminating the beauty of the faith, taking into account the religious multiplicity of the country). Karaganda welcomes, together with the diocese of Astana, the majority of the country’s Catholics, due to the greater concentration of deportees that was experienced in that northern area. In fact, key figures for the current flourishing of the Church lived and died in that second city, such as Blessed Bukovinskiy, Aleksey Zaritsky and others.
The faithful of the Church in Kazakhstan eagerly await the Pope’s visit. As Francisco himself commented on the last visit ad limina of 2019, it is time to rejoice with the small herbs that grow in this land of steppes, harmony and peaceful coexistence. The Pope’s visit to this missionary periphery will undoubtedly be very fruitful. The whole country joins in the welcome that the current president of the country Kasym-Jomart Tokaev, initiator of the official invitation to the Pope, prepares with care and respect.
The authorAurora Diaz Soloaga