Why Pope Francis chose to highlight religious freedom during his visit to Kazakhstan

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J. Eugene Clay, Arizona State University

(THE CONVERSATION) Pope Francis spent three days in Kazakhstan, starting September 13, 2022, to attend the Seventh Congress of World and Traditional Religions. The Pope met with religious leaders, called for increased religious freedom and condemned religious justifications for war and violence.

The pope’s call for peace in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan was particularly important in light of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, which he called “senseless”.

Most Christians in Kazakhstan belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, justified the Russian invasion as a moral crusade. Francis had hoped to meet Kirill, who chose not to attend the convention. In Kirill’s absence, Francis addressed his remarks to the Russian Orthodox delegation.

As a scholar who has spent more than 30 years studying Christianity in the former Soviet Union, I followed the Pope’s visit with keen interest. He chose to highlight the causes of peace and religious freedom, subjects of particular concern to the Catholic minority in Kazakhstan.

Christianity in Kazakhstan

Although Kazakhstan is predominantly Muslim, more than 4 million Kazakhs profess Christianity. This represents more than a quarter of the country’s total population of 19 million. More than 80% of Christians in Kazakhstan are ethnic Russians.

Christian missionaries brought their gospel to Central Asia as early as the third century AD. By the seventh century, Christians had established important centers along the Silk Road, the trade routes from China to Constantinople.

The Assyrian Church of the East, a branch of Christianity that developed in the Persian Empire, had a significant presence in the territory of Kazakhstan until the 12th century.

After the Muslim conquest of Central Asia in the 7th and 8th centuries, Christianity slowly lost its influence and began a long decline. In the 14th century, Franciscan missionaries from Italy briefly established a diocese in what is now southeastern Kazakhstan.

The Russian Conquest

In the 17th century, Russia began its expansion into Siberia and the steppes of northern Kazakhstan. The Cossack soldiers, who belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church, established military outposts, where they also practiced their faith. Additionally, the “Old Believers”—religious dissenters who broke with the official Orthodox Church over ritual issues—fleed to Siberia and northern Kazakhstan to escape persecution. The Old Believers continue to maintain their communities in the Altai Mountains in eastern Kazakhstan.

The Russian conquest of Central Asia in the 1860s and 1870s further increased the number of Christian settlers in the region. In 1871, the Russian Orthodox Church established the Diocese of Turkestan, which included much of present-day Kazakhstan. The diocesan center was the city of Vernyi, which is now called Almaty and is the largest city in Kazakhstan.

The Russian Orthodox Church also attempted, with limited success, to convert Kazakh nomads, who practiced Islam. In 1881 he established a special missionary society to preach the gospel to the Kazakhs. The mission translated the Bible and some liturgical texts into Kazakh. Despite these efforts, most Kazakhs remained Muslim.

In search of new agricultural land, German Mennonites and Russian Evangelical Christians settled in Kazakhstan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These settlers established a Protestant presence in this increasingly diverse territory.

Religion in Soviet Kazakhstan

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the imperial government, ushered in a period of severe anti-religious persecution. Most churches and mosques were closed in 1939. The Soviet authorities also forced Kazakh nomads to settle in collective farms, destroying their traditional way of life.

Kazakhstan has become the site of a chain of collective labor camps housing political prisoners. In campaigns of ethnic cleansing, the Soviet government deported thousands of Poles and Germans to Kazakhstan in the 1930s and 1940s. of these deportees.

Religious Persecution Today

With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Kazakhstan became an independent country. According to the latest census, conducted in 2009, about 70% of the population professes Islam. Christianity, at 26%, is the second largest religion.

Pope Francis specifically called on Kazakhstan to increase religious freedom, which he described as a “fundamental, primary and inalienable right”. Human rights organization Forum 18 reported that in the 2021 calendar year, Kazakh authorities convicted at least 114 people and five organizations for exercising their religious faith without state permission. Such convictions usually result in heavy fines. For example, police raided the worship service of an unregistered Baptist congregation in the town of Oral in January 2021. Church leaders each had to pay one month’s average salary for the violation.

Despite their large numbers, Christians – especially those of small denominations – were persecuted. In 2011, Kazakhstan passed a law on religion that instituted a laborious process for registering religious organizations. According to the US Office of International Religious Freedom, Kazakh authorities are arresting and imprisoning people because of their religious beliefs. For example, in 2019, three pastors of the Almaty New Life Pentecostal Church were each sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to five years for their religious activities.

For their part, Kazakh leaders have been more concerned with ensuring state security and stability than with advancing individual religious freedom. They have preferred to favor what they see as traditional world religions such as Hanafi Sunni Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholicism, Lutheranism and Judaism. To this end, in 2003, the President of Kazakhstan established the Congress of World and Traditional Religions.

Pope Francis has chosen this place to express his concerns on the controversial topics of peace and religious freedom. Time will tell whether or not his appeals are successful.

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