Overview of Church in Kazakhstan for Pope’s visit
By Lisa Zengarini
The origins of the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan can be traced back to the 13th century. In 1253, the King of France, St. Louis, sent some missionaries to this territory directed to Mongolia.
Then, 25 years later, in 1278, Pope Nicholas III entrusted the entire mission in the Central Asian region to the Franciscan Order. In the first half of 14th century, the Franciscan friars built a small convent and a cathedral in the city of Almalyk.
In that time, Pope John XXII sent a letter to the Chagatai Khan, the second son of Genghis Khan, to thank him for the kindness shown to Christians in his kingdom. However, in 1340, persecutions began, and there were no records of the presence of Christians in the region until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Kazakh territory was under the rule of the Russian Empire.
Kazakh Catholic Church in 20th century
Roman Catholics began to arrive in Kazakhstan in the early twentieth century.
They were soldiers of the Russian army, or exiles, deportees, prisoners of war, settlers and refugees. Many Catholic refugees and prisoners of war arrived during the First World War.
In 1917, the parish of Pietropavlovsk numbered some 5,000 faithful, while the parish of Kustanai counted more than 6,000. Other Catholics of various nationalities arrived as deportees during the seven decades of the Soviet regime.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent independence of Kazakhstan in 1991 was a turning point also for the small Kazakh Catholic Church.
The first milestone of this development was the establishment of diplomatic relations between the former Soviet Republic and the Holy See, on 17 October 1992, followed, on 24 September 1998, by the signing of an important Agreement on mutual relations by which the Kazakh government granted the Catholic Church freedom of worship, of speech through media, and to carry out its pastoral and social activities with no restrictions; to establish, organize, and direct educational institutions; and full access to prisons and health facilities to provide spiritual assistance.
Ongoing interreligious dialogue after end of Soviet Union
These two events marked the beginning of an ongoing fruitful collaboration between the Catholic Church and the Kazakh authorities, in particular in the field of interreligious dialogue.
This is testified by the three official visits to the Vatican by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev (which took place in 1998 for the signing of the Agreement on mutual relations with the Holy See, in 2003 and 2009), but, most importantly, by the Apostolic Journey of Pope St. John Paul II on 22-25 September 2001, which was the first visit by a Roman Catholic pontiff to a Central Asian country.
The motto chosen for the Journey was: "Love one another”, aimed at underlining the peaceful coexistence of Kazakhstan’s many ethnic and religious communities.
These aspects were underscored several times by John Paul II during his three-day stay. Meeting young people at the Eurasia University of Astana on 23 September, the Polish Pope described Kazakhstan as “a land of encounter, exchange and newness; a land which stirs in everyone the desire for new discoveries and makes it possible to experience difference not as a threat but as an enrichment.”
This same desire to promote the values of coexistence and dialogue between peoples and faiths, as opposed to attempts to exploit religion for political ends, inspired the “Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions”, which was first launched in 2003 in Astana (now Nur-Sultan) by former President Nazarbayev, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and following the “spirit of Assisi”, the interreligious meetings for peace held in the home town of St. Francis and convened for the first time by St. John Paul II in 1986
Since then, the meetings have been held every three years in the Kazakh capital – the last of which took place in 2018 on the theme "Religious leaders for a safe world" – with the participation of a Vatican delegation. This has further contributed to reinforce the collaboration between Kazakhstan and the Holy See for promoting interreligious dialogue.
The Holy See’s contribution to dialogue between faiths was officially recognized by Kazakhstan on 6 February 2013, when a Kazakh delegation, led by the President of the Senate visiting the Vatican on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the "Inter-religious Congress", conferred a special award to Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran and Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, and to Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, Official of the then Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
This consonance of values was further confirmed in 2017 on the occasion of the International Exhibition of Astana (known as “Expo 2017”) which was held from 9 June - 10 September that year on the theme "Future Energy”. The Holy See participated in the event with a Pavilion themed "Energy for the Common Good - Taking Care of our Common Home".
On the National Day of the Holy See at Expo 2017, on 2 September, Pope Francis sent a message, in which he recalled “the growth of dialogue and cooperation between religions that has taken place in Kazakhstan, a land characterized by rich ethnic, cultural and spiritual traditions.”
Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson, then Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, participated in several Expo 2017 events, including an inter-religious conference at the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.
The good existing relations between the Holy See and the Kazakhstan received a further boost in October 2020, when the now Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue and the Kazakh Center for the Development of Interfaith and Inter-civil Dialogue 'Nursultan Nazarbayev "(NJSC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the aim of pathing the way to "new opportunities and more promising ways to implement common projects, to promote respect and knowledge among the representatives of the various religions."
The open religious policies of former President Nazarbayev's, though within the framework of stricter controls over religious activities introduced in 2011 to prevent religious radicalization, have also been pursued by his successor Kassym Zhomar Tokayev.
In this context, the Church in Kazakhstan has been able to continue carrying out its activities as established by the 1998 agreement. This includes its charitable work conducted by Caritas Kazakhstan, which since 1997 has been on the frontline in assisting the poor and the most vulnerable.
Today, the Catholic charity’s initiatives include various social services throughout the country; the management of some orphanages, and assistance to AIDS patients.
A small minority
The Catholic Church accounts for about 1% of Kazakhstan's 19 million inhabitants, 70% of whom are Muslims, while 26% are Christians, mostly Russian Orthodox.
Under the Soviet regime, the Catholic population in Kazakhstan was made up of different ethnic groups, especially former deportees, but since independence many of them returned to their respective countries of origin and emigration continues today, due to the economic situation.
The Catholic faithful in the country are distributed in 4 dioceses: the Archdiocese of Mary Most Holy in Astana (now Nur-Sultan), the Diocese of the Holy Trinity in Almaty, the Diocese of Karaganda and the Apostolic Administration of Atyrau, for a total of 70 parishes, and are assisted by some 90 priests.
Bishops' Conference of Central Asia
In Septembe 2021, the Church marked a new important milestone, not only from an organizational point of view, with the establishment of the Bishops' Conference of Central Asia (CEVAC), which brings together the Churches of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Afghanistan.
The new transnational episcopal conference met for the first time on 26-30 April 2022, and appointed as its first president Bishop José Luis Mumbiela Sierra of Almaty.
Bishop Jerzy Maculewicz, Apostolic Administrator of Uzbekistan, and Bishop Evgeny Zinkovsky, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Karaganda, were appointed vice president and secretary, respectively.