ASTANA, Kazakhstan, SEPT. 23, 2001 (Zenit.org).- On arrival Saturday in this Central Asian republic, John Paul II appealed for an end to violence and cooperation among believers of different religions.
The Holy Father´s 95th international trip has acquired unexpected importance in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Kazakhstan is a mere republic away from Afghanistan — Uzbekistan sits between them — and the United States is pressuring Kabul to turn over Osama bin Laden, a prime suspect in the attacks.
Bin Laden in recent years has backed Muslim fundamentalist expansion in the region, particularly in Kazakhstan.
The Holy Father, addressing his host country in Russia, said: “Controversies must not be resolved by recourse to arms but by the peaceful means of negotiation and dialogue.” Kazakhstan has more than 100 different ethnic groups.
“When in a society citizens accept one another in their respective religious beliefs, it is easier to foster among them the effective recognition of other human rights and an understanding of the values on which a peaceful and productive coexistence is based,” the Holy Father said in his first address on Kazakh soil.
In this connection, John Paul II applauded two early decisions made by Kazakhstan when it became independent in 1991: the proclamation of religious freedom and unilateral renunciation of nuclear armament.
In his welcome address, Kazakh President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev thanked the Pope in Russian for his courageous decision to undertake the trip to Kazakhstan, despite the uncertain atmosphere in the world following the terrorist attacks on the United States.
“Muslims and Christians must create a society based on love,” the former leader of the Soviet Communist Party in Kazakhstan said. According to Nazarbayev, dialogue between believers of different religions is also among the weapons for the struggle against terrorism.
Among those welcoming the Pope was the grand mufti of Kazakhstan, wearing a white turban.
John Paul II, after descending the steps of Alitalia´s Airbus A321 from Rome, greeted the Kazakh president and then kissed the soil held in a bowl by two girls dressed in the typical costumes of the cold Kazakh steppes.
Following the welcome ceremony at the airport, John Paul II rendered silent homage at the Monument to the Victims of the Totalitarian Regime in Astana. The Holy Father, who was wearing a red cape, rested his hands on his walking stick to pray for a few moments for the victims of Kazakhstan´s 11 concentration camps, where Stalin deported thousands of “enemies” of the fatherland and Socialism.
While in Kazakhstan, the Pope is staying at the Apostolic Nunciature. The country was one of the first former Soviet republics to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican.