VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis had hoped his trip to Kazakhstan this week would offer a chance to meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church — who has justified the war in Ukraine — and plead for peace. Patriarch Kirill bowed out a few weeks ago, but Francis is going ahead with the trip that is nevertheless being overshadowed by Russia’s seven-month war.
Francis travels to the majority-Muslim former Soviet republic on Tuesday to minister to its tiny Catholic community and participate in a Kazakh-sponsored conference of world religious leaders. The conference had as its original goal to promote interfaith dialogue in the post-pandemic world, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given it a more immediate cause: for faith leaders from around the world to appeal for peace with a united voice.
“It will be an occasion to meet so many religious representatives and to dialogue as brothers, animated by the common desire for peace, the peace for which our world is thirsting,” Francis told thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday.
In a way, Kirill’s absence will make life easier for all involved: Kazakhstan won’t have its showcase gathering of Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Shinto and Jewish leaders from 50 countries overshadowed by a headline-grabbing photo op between the pope and the patriarch. Francis won’t have the diplomatic headache of having to explain to Ukraine why he met with an ideological supporter of Russia’s war before Francis even visited Kyiv. And Kirill will avoid the embarrassment of being present when a global congress of imams, rabbis, ministers and a pope issues a final statement largely expected to denounce war.
But for Kazakhstan’s Catholic leaders, Kirill’s absence represents something of a lost opportunity.
“Personally I am pained,” said Bishop Adelio Dell’Oro of the Kazakh diocese of Karaganda. “I think a meeting between them on the sidelines of the congress would have been a notable contribution, notable in this process of peace to clarify what religions can contribute to human coexistence in the world. So I am disappointed, but you have to accept it.”
The interfaith congress is an important triennial event for Kazakhstan, a country that borders Russia to the north, China to the east and is home to some 130 ethnic groups: It’s a showpiece of its foreign policy and a reflection of its own multicultural and multiethnic population that has long been touted as a crossroads between East and West.
“We can say that Kazakhstan is really a place where dialogue is not some formal slogan, but this is a Kazakh brand," said Monsignor Piotr Pytlowany, spokesman for the Kazakh bishops conference. "Kazakhstan wants to share dialogue not only during this congress but also after it, offering the dialogue as one of the possible ways to resolve the various difficulties that the world now faces.”
When St. John Paul II visited in 2001, 10 years after independence, he highlighted Kazakhstan’s diversity while recalling its dark past under Stalinist repression: Entire villages of ethnic Poles were deported en masse from western Ukraine to Kazakhstan beginning in 1936, and the Soviet government deported hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans, Chechens and other accused Nazi collaborators to Kazakhstan during World War II. Many of the deportees’ descendants remained and some of them make up the country’s Catholic community, which only numbers about 125,000 in a country of nearly 19 million.
Kazakh bishops had asked Francis to visit a former Soviet detention camp during his three-day visit, but the 85-year-old pope declined due to his strained knee ligaments, which have forced him to use a wheelchair and cane to get around.
His program has time for private meetings with religious leaders attending the congress. While the Vatican hasn’t released a list, expected participants include Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo.
One visitor not currently on his agenda: Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is expected in Kazakhstan on his first foreign trip since the coronavirus pandemic. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said there were no current plans for any meeting and noted that Xi isn’t attending the religious conference. China and the Holy See haven’t had diplomatic relations for over a half-century.
Francis has repeatedly denounced Russia’s war in Ukraine as an unjust “violent aggression,” expressed solidarity with the “martyred” Ukrainian people and sent personal envoys to Ukraine to provide humanitarian and spiritual aid. At the same time, he has refrained from calling out Russia or President Vladimir Putin by name, trying to maintain a path of dialogue with Moscow in keeping with the Vatican’s diplomatic tradition of not taking sides in a conflict.
Kirill has justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on spiritual and ideological grounds, calling it a “metaphysical” battle with the West. He has blessed Russian soldiers going into battle and invoked the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.
The Kazakh congress would have provided a neutral location and coincidental excuse for their second-ever meeting, and both Kirill and Francis had originally confirmed their presence. But Kirill pulled out last month. A former Vatican ambassador to Moscow has suggested that grumblings within the Russian Orthodox hierarchy might have factored into Kirill’s decision.
Perhaps they saw the writing on the wall. Just last week, the general assembly of the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of more than 350 churches representing more than a half-billion Christians worldwide, denounced what it called an “illegal and unjustifiable” invasion and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which is a member of the WCC, refused to vote for the “politicized” declaration and complained about what it called “unprecedented pressure” on members to condemn Moscow and the Russian church.
Kazakhstan, for its part, has had to walk a thin line with the war. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has vowed to respect Western sanctions against Russia while trying to maintain close ties with Moscow, an important economic partner and ally. At the same time Tokayev refused to recognize the Russia-backed separatist “people’s republics” in Ukraine, which Moscow recognized days before invading Ukraine.
While Kazakhstan could have emerged as the mediator if Francis and Kirill had met, “maybe it’s even better that this is not happening because Kazakhstan would have looked like as a country that is getting involved in the Ukraine crisis, and this is the last thing that Kazakhstan wants to do right now,” said Temur Umarov, a Central Asia expert and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Manenkov reported from Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.