Kazakhstan Bishop: Pope Francis brings us a model of fraternity
By Federico Piana
"The presence of the Holy Father constitutes for the Congress itself its greatest achievement in all these years because the Pontiff is the most important and recognised international figure in the field of promoting dialogue between different nations, cultures and religions". Those were the words of Bishop José Luis Mumbiela Sierra, President of the Episcopal Conference of Kazakhstan and Bishop of the Holy Trinity diocese in Almaty, who explained the importance of Pope Francis' participation in the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions that will take place in Nur-Sultan, the country's capital, on 14th and 15th September.
Kazakhstan is a nation situated between Asia and Europe. It became independent in 1990 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union of which it was a part, and is made up of different ethnic groups; a Muslim majority and a Christian minority, mainly Orthodox. It is in this very diverse context that interreligious and intercultural dialogue has been enriching society as a whole for several years. Bishop Mumbiela Sierra, who has recently been elected president of the Central Asian Bishops' Conference, expressed the hope that “the words that will be spoken by Pope Francis during his visit will be received with fervour so that, in the future, this very congress will be transformed into an authentic workshop for peace in the world.”
Q: Bishop Mumbiela, what value will the Pope's presence in Kazakhstan have for the entire country?
I believe that his presence serves to underline the vocation of this country as a model of peaceful coexistence between different ethnic groups and religions. In its 30 years of independence, Kazakhstan has tried to mark this roadmap in its new journey through history. It is a path that is not without its difficulties, of course, but it is worth being faithful to the great principles even if that requires sacrifices. Moreover, the Pope's visit is always a stimulus so that the salt and light that we, Catholics, are called to transmit in this country, is not lost or extinguished. On the contrary, his visit will be a moment of grace so that the disciples of Jesus Christ can renew their faith, hope and charity. In this way, through us, the entire country can receive a greater blessing, because the authentic witness of faith is a gain for all those who live among us. Much depends on our personal fidelity to the Gospel.
Q: What will be the themes of this Congress and how will it be developed?
In principle, the central theme of this year's Congress is to study and evaluate the role that religious leaders are called to play in the spiritual and social development of humanity in the post-pandemic period. Several presentations and panel discussions are planned during the meeting dates, as well as the publication of a joint paper.
Q: What is the dimension and role of interreligious and intercultural dialogue in Kazakhstan? What fruits has it borne over the years?
For 30 years, when Kazakhstan embarked on the path to independence, it wanted harmony between different religions, together with unity between several ethnic groups, to be the social pillars for building a prosperous country. Throughout all these years, the government itself has promoted dialogue, mutual understanding and friendship between the different religious leaders of a city, province or region. Even in the official calendar, there is one day a year, 18 October, dedicated to religious harmony: around that date, round tables or joint celebrations are usually held. The very holding of Congresses of world religious leaders in the capital of Kazakhstan in recent years has been a clear sign that this is not just an idea for our country but speaks of a clear conviction: it is the way for all countries, for peace in the world.
Q: How does the Church promote this dialogue?
We try to actively participate at all levels, whether at the level of small centres, such as cities, or at the regional or national level. Moreover, what is most important, on a personal level, is that sincere friendships are created between our priests or bishops and representatives of other denominations, Christian and non-Christian. We also instill this same spirit among our faithful, so that social coexistence can be based on the clear and solid principles of brotherhood and peaceful coexistence between people of different cultures and religions.
Q: In your opinion, what is the future development of interreligious and intercultural dialogue in the country?
The future of each generation is a challenge, because it has to be created on the basis of beliefs that have to be renewed frequently. In these 30 years, a great effort has been made and it would not be good to lower the level. As we know, social circumstances, also influenced by international life, can change overnight. That is why we cannot live on borrowed time but must continue along this line. Evangelising also means strengthening social coexistence through dialogue and cordiality between those who profess different beliefs, or none at all.
Q: You were recently elected president of the Central Asian Bishops' Conference: how important is interreligious and intercultural dialogue for the other countries that make up the ecclesial body you represent?
Every country has its own circumstances. Our new Bishops' Conference is very diverse in this regard. As you can easily guess, it is not the same in Kazakhstan as in Afghanistan. For example, our countries are all Muslim majority countries except Mongolia, where the majority is Buddhist. They are, therefore, very different realities. But in general, we are all convinced that the vocation to unity is not just an intra-ecclesial dream but rather a yearning for union among all so that the peace that Christ brought us may reign. We are not pilgrims in search of an unattainable unity but witnesses of a unity that is already lived in our hearts, because the one God dwells in our souls and sends us so that all those created in his image and likeness may enjoy his life and love.