Kazakhstan Preparing for a Papal Visit

Will Be the First Stage of Trip to Armenia

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MOSCOW, JULY 5, 2001 (Zenit.org).- In his next international trip, John Paul II will visit Kazakhstan, the largest of the Central Asian republics, born after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Cardinal Lubomyr Husar confirmed the news at the end of the papal visit to Ukraine, and Monsignor Renato Boccardo, the new organizer of papal trips, has already made a reconnaissance tour of Kazakhstan.

Preparations are in full swing in the capital, Astana, which will be the first stage of John Paul II´s trip to Armenia in September.

At first it seems strange for the Pope to travel to a country halfway between Rome and Beijing, with a small Catholic presence — only about 300,000, or 2% of the population.

There hasn´t been an official Vatican announcement of the trip. But there was talk of a possible visit back in 1999, as part of John Paul II´s return from India. The Pope had been invited a year earlier by President Nursultan Nazarbayev during an audience at the Vatican.

On that occasion, a bilateral agreement was signed with the consequent juridical recognition of the Catholic Church in this republic of 16.7 million people.

The new ecclesiastical organization took shape a few months later. Until then, it had only had an apostolic administrator. Now, there are five dioceses with four bishops, serving a territory almost four times the size of Texas.

Kazakhstan was part of the ancient silk-trade route. Franciscan missionaries evangelized it in the 14th century, and today it is a frontier land in which Christianity and Islam coexist.

In the past, it was a land of deportation. Millions of people were forced to move to its inhospitable steppes. Many died of privation and those who survived were obliged to build collective factories near the local people, who in turn were forced to break with the nomad tradition and work in the kolkhozes, or collective farms, in the best of cases, or in concentration camps. In this tragic exile, Christians knew heroism and martyrdom.

The Church´s rebirth over the past 10 years has been without the clashes with the Orthodox that have been common in Russia. Relations are very good between Catholics and the faithful of the Moscow Patriarchate in Kazakhstan.

Metropolitan Alexy of Alma-Ata regularly meets with Catholic priests, appreciates their work, and favors close cooperation in charitable work. Christian alliances seem natural in a country of Muslim majority that is aiming to relaunch its own Kazakh identity.

In a recent survey on the world figures most liked by the Kazakhs, John Paul II was No. 1. Even the Muslims, who have not suffered from the fundamentalism that dominates other former Soviet countries, look forward to the papal visit.

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