Pope Francis wishes to visit Kazakhstan for World Religions Congress
By Lisa Zengarini
Pope Francis has expressed the desire to travel to Kazakhstan on the occasion of the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions to be held early in September in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan. The theme of this year’s event will be "The Role of Leaders of World and Traditional Faiths in the Socio-Spiritual Development of Humanity after the Pandemic".
According to the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, the Pope spoke about this possible journey during a live video conversation he held on Monday with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
The first Congress in 2003
The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions is held in Nur-Sultan (former Astana) every three years, gathering world religious leaders from across the world. It was initiated in 2003 by former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on the model of the "Day of Prayer for Peace" convened in Assisi, Italy, by Pope St. John Paul II on 24 January 2002 in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States, to reaffirm the positive contribution of religious traditions to dialogue and harmony between peoples and nations.
The Holy See's support for the initiative
This first forum was attended by 17 delegations from 23 countries and was focused mainly on countering terrorism and religious extremism issues threatening world peace. On that occasion, Pope St. John Paul II, who had visited the Caucasian country in September 2001, sent a message to participants expressing hope that the initiative might help promote the respect of human dignity and the protection of religious freedom.
To mark the 10th anniversary of that event, a Kazakh official delegation visited the Vatican in 2013. During the visit, it awarded a State decoration to Cardinals Jean-Louis Tauran, and Giovanni Lajolo, former Secretaries for Relations with States, and Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, an official at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, in recognition of the Holy See’s support to this initiative and of its commitment to religious dialogue an peace. A photographic exhibition was also presented to illustrate the ten-year activity of the Congress, which up until that year had convened four times.
The 6th Congress in 2018
The last Congress (from 10-11 October 2018) was focused on the theme “Religious Leaders for a Safe World” and saw the participation of 82 delegations from 46 countries. The Catholic Church delegation was led by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and included, amongst others, Msgr. Khaled Akasheh, and Archbishop Francis Assisi Chullikatt, Apostolic Nuncio to Kazakhstan. Among the topics discussed were the relationship between religion and globalization and, again, the role of religious leaders in overcoming extremism and terrorism.
St. John Paul II's visit to Kazakhstan in 2001
St. John Paul the II was the first Pope to visit Kazakhstan, where Muslims account for the majority of the population (70%) and Christians, mostly Orthodox, for some 30%, of which Catholics 1%. The motto chosen for that visit was significantly “Love one other” highlighting the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of Kazakh society which the Polish Pope described as a “country open to dialogue and encounter”.
Good relations between Holy See and Kazakhstan
Dialogue has been the focus of the good relations the Catholic Church and the Holy See have entertained with the nation since 1992, after Kazakhstan became independent from the former Soviet Union. This dialogue is of particular relevance today in the context of the internal political tensions that have marked the Caucasian nation in the past months and also in light of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.