NUR-SULTAN – Pope Francis begged for an end to Russia’s “senseless and tragic war” in Ukraine as he arrived Tuesday in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan to join faith leaders from around the world in praying for peace.
Francis flew to the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan to meet with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev for an official state visit portion of his three-day trip. On Wednesday and Thursday, he participates in a government-sponsored triennial interfaith meeting, which is gathering more than 100 delegations of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Shinto and other faith groups from 50 countries.
The 85-year-old Francis made the trip despite what appeared to be an aggravation of the strained knee ligaments that have greatly reduced his mobility all year. Francis struggled to walk through the aisle of the aircraft during the 6.5-hour flight from Rome, and he appeared tired and in pain as he limped heavily with his cane, ceding to a wheelchair for most events once in town. Doctors have told him that for the time being, any further travel — to Kyiv, for example — is out of the question.
Speaking upon his arrival to government authorities and diplomats gathered at the Qazaq concert hall, Francis praised Kazakhstan’s commitment to diversity and dialogue and its progress from decades of Stalinist repression, when Kazakhstan was the destination of hundreds of thousands of Soviet deportees.
Francis said the country, which borders Russia to the north and China to the east and is home to some 150 ethnic groups and 80 languages, now has a “fundamental role to play” in helping ease conflicts elsewhere.
Recalling that St. John Paul II visited Kazakhstan just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., Francis said he was visiting “in the course of the senseless and tragic war that broke out with the invasion of Ukraine.”
“I have come to echo the plea of all those who cry out for peace, which is the essential path to development for our globalized world,” he said.
Directing himself at global superpowers, he said expanding efforts at diplomacy and dialogue were ever more important. “And those who hold greater power in the world have greater responsibility with regard to others, especially those countries most prone to unrest and conflict.”
“Now is the time to stop intensifying rivalries and reinforcing opposing blocs,” he said.
Tokayev didn’t mention Ukraine specifically in his prepared remarks to Francis. But speaking in English, he referred in general terms about humanity being on an “edge of an abyss as geopolitical tensions escalate, global economy suffers, and mushrooming religious and ethnic intolerance becomes the ‘new normal.’”
Kazakhstan has had to walk a thin line with the war. 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.
The most noteworthy aspects of Francis’ visit to Kazakhstan might boil down to the missed opportunities with both Russia and China: Francis was supposed to have met with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church on the sidelines of the conference. But Patriarch Kirill, who has supported the war in Ukraine, canceled his trip last month.
Francis is also going to be in the Kazakh capital at the same time as Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is making his first foreign trip since early in the coronavirus pandemic.
The Vatican and China haven’t had diplomatic relations for a half century and the timing is somewhat tense, with the two sides finalizing the renewal of a controversial deal over the nominations of Catholic bishops in China.
The Vatican has said there were no current plans for any meeting between Xi and Francis while they were both in Kazakhstan and the Kazakh deputy foreign minister, Roman Vassilenko said he didn’t believe there was time in Xi’s schedule to meet with Francis.
Asked about the possibility en route to Nur-Sultan, Francis said: “I don’t have any news about this. But I am always ready to go to China.”
The interfaith congress, now in its seventh iteration, is a showpiece of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy and a reflection of its own multicultural and multiethnic population that has long been touted as a crossroads between East and West.
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.
Sophia Gatovskaya, a parishioner at Our Lady Of Perpetual Help Cathedral in the capital, said she attended that first papal visit and that it has borne fruits to this day.
“It was actually amazing. And after this visit, we have peace and tolerance in our republic. We have a lot of nationalities in Kazakhstan, and we all live together. And we expect the same from this visit (of Pope Francis) that we will have peace in our republic. And we very much expect that the war in Ukraine will end.”
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