Why is Pope Francis going to Kazakhstan? Here’s what he plans to do

Pope Francis prayed in front of the Salus Populi Romani icon in the Basilica of St. Mary Major on the morning of July 22, 2022. Pope Francis prayed in front of the Salus Populi Romani icon in the Basilica of St. Mary Major on the morning of July 22, 2022. He prayed again in front of the icon on Sept. 12, 2022, to entrust his upcoming trip to Kazakhstan to Mary. | Vatican Media

Pope Francis on Monday evening prayed in front of the long-venerated Marian icon of Salus Populi Romani (“Protection of the Roman People”) in Santa Maria Maggiore, entrusting his upcoming trip to Kazakhstan to Mary’s protection. 

The pope plans to visit the large, landlocked Asian country — the second pope to do so — Sept. 13–15 for an interreligious meeting. The Kazakhstan-based meeting has been held every three years since 2003 (it was delayed since last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and this year expects to host more than 100 delegations of various religions from 60 countries.

Kazakhstan is a majority-Muslim country home to an ethnically diverse minority of Catholics — an estimated 250,000 in total. Most of Kazakhstan’s Catholics are Latin-rite, but there is also an Eastern-rite minority of approximately 3,000 people. St. John Paul II visited the country in 2001 to an enthusiastic welcome.

The people of Kazakhstan were likely first evangelized by Franciscan missionaries in the 13th century. The Catholic population grew thanks to deportations of believers from across the Soviet Union. Religious believers suffered active persecution when it was part of the Soviet Union; today, it is an officially secular state where religious freedom is tolerated.

On Tuesday morning, Sept. 13, Pope Francis will fly out of Rome directly to Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan and a prominent city of more than 1 million known until recently as Astana. Upon his arrival, he will receive an official welcome and welcome ceremony at the presidential palace with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Finally, that evening, the pope will have a meeting with civil authorities and the Diplomatic Corps at the Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall.

On Wednesday, the opening and plenary session of the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions will take place at the Palace of Independence. At the conference, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to meet with several Muslim leaders attending the congress, including representatives from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and across Central Asia.

After the session, the pope will have private meetings with various religious leaders at the congress. And that afternoon, at 4:45 p.m. local time, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass at the expo.

On the final morning of the visit, the pope will hold a private meeting with members of the Society of Jesus at the apostolic nunciature. He will then hold a meeting with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians, and pastoral workers. In recent years, Kazakhstan has emerged as a bastion of traditionalist Catholicism, in part because of the outspoken Bishop Athanasius Schneider, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Maria Santissima in Astana.

That afternoon, there will be a reading of the Final Declaration and Conclusion of the Congress at the Palace of Independence, followed by a farewell ceremony at Nur-Sultan International Airport, after which the pope will return to Rome.

The interreligious conference and Pope Francis’ trip nearly coincide with the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Kazakhstan, which took place on Oct. 17, 1992.

Pope Francis’ trip is also notable because of the people he may — but likely will not — meet while he is there. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Kazakhstan on the same day Pope Francis will be there, though it is unlikely that Xi — who oversees the persecution of religious people of many stripes in China — will take part in the summit of Muslim, Christian, and other religious leaders. The pope is scheduled to hold private meetings with some of the participants in the interreligious summit at noon on Sept. 14, the day of Xi’s visit to the Kazakh capital.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, is not expected to attend the interreligious summit, though his Church will send a delegation. It had been hoped he would meet with Pope Francis to discuss a peaceful resolution to the war in Ukraine. Kirill is widely viewed as close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a supporter of Putin’s military actions in Ukraine. Russia’s war in Ukraine looms in the background of the pope’s trip, so much so that the papal plane will go out of its way to avoid flying through Russian airspace on Sept. 13 and will instead fly further south.

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