OXFORD, England, SEPT. 26, 2001 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II´s trip to Kazakhstan aimed in part to strengthen a local Church that struggles to keep the faithful from emigrating.

For a perspective on religion in the Central Asian republic, ZENIT asked Felix Corley, news editor of the Oxford-based Keston News Service, to gauge the situation.

Corley is author of "Religion in the Soviet Union: An Archival Reader" (New York University Press, 1996). The Keston Institute researches and promotes religious freedom for both Christians and non-Christians and publishes a news service by e-mail.

Q: What possibilities are open to the Catholic Church, and Christian groups in general, to evangelize and expand their numbers?

Corley: Kazakhstan has, in recent years, stepped up state control over all religious communities, so the Catholic Church is restricted in how it develops its mission.

Perhaps as a result of these controls -- which include a ban on "proselytism," a term often misused to embrace all missionary activities, not just those directed at fellow Christians -- the Catholic Church has concentrated on strengthening the institutional structures that emerged with such difficulty during the Soviet postwar period (it is no accident that Karaganda, a mining town that became a place of exile for many deported Catholics, is a major Catholic center) and seeking out people -- mainly of Polish, Ukrainian, Korean or German origin -- whose ancestors were Catholic.

It has also been trying to encourage Catholics to remain in the country, rather than seeking emigration to what many believe will be a better life in Germany or Poland -- or even Russia.

Although the Church has not had a great deal of success -- some 200,000 of an estimated 500,000 Catholics have emigrated in the past decade -- it is intent on showing that it is here to stay. The Catholic Church has been keen to show that it is not inward-looking, funding charitable projects to support all people according to need regardless of their faith.

Q: What will be the most important consequences of the Pope´s visit?

Corley: Pope John Paul was addressing several audiences during the visit. He was encouraging local Catholics to remain faithful to their Church and honoring them for the witness they gave during the persecutions of the Soviet period.

He was addressing local Muslims -- the largest of the country´s faiths -- encouraging them to engage in dialogue with Christians to promote interreligious harmony. He was assuring Kazakhstan´s political leadership that he respected their country´s independence.

And finally, in words spoken in English, he was telling the world as a whole -- and particularly the United States -- that the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington should not lead to renewed conflict between faiths or to indiscriminate military retaliation that would harm the innocent.

Q: John Paul II has often spoken of the need for the Church in Europe to breathe with both lungs -- West and East. What can Western Europe learn from Christians in Central Asia?

Corley: Christians of all denominations in Central Asia -- as in all parts of the Soviet Union -- suffered greatly for their faith. Many priests and lay people were arrested, imprisoned, deported and prevented from practicing their faith freely.

The faith was kept alive often without priests or nuns, and in this, lay women played a great role. The continued existence of the Catholic Church in Central Asia is due to the faith of such devoted Christians.

Q: Given the political and economic instability of the region, what is the Catholic Church´s contribution to improving conditions?

Corley: The Catholic Church is a small Church in a region where most of the population is of Muslim background and where the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest Christian Church. The Catholic Church has to promote peaceful relations between believers of all faiths, to work for the common good and to remind all people of the dignity and value of each individual.

Q: What are the risks as Islam and Christianity confront each other in Kazakhstan?

Corley: Of all the countries of Central Asia, Kazakhstan is the closest to equality in the numbers of citizens of Muslim and Christian background. So far there has not been the conflict between these two major faiths, although tensions persist between ethnic Kazakhs and local European settlers.

As Kazakhstan tries to develop its own identity, drawing on the traditions of Kazakh culture and asserting the Kazakh identity of the state, many of these mainly Russian-speaking Europeans have felt alienated from the political process.

The role of all elements in society, the government, politicians, civil society and religious believers, should be to retain harmony.