In mid-September, Pope Francis visited Kazakhstan to join the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. While most international attention focused on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, which occurred almost at the same time in neighboring Uzbekistan (September 15-16), the papal visit was no less geopolitical and significant.
Pope Francis’ trip was part of broader and long-term diplomatic efforts of the Vatican toward Central Asia and beyond. On the very day of his arrival at the Kazakh capital, and just before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Samarkand in search of a new global order, the Argentinian pope vehemently called on leaders to renew the spirit of Helsinki and avoid the logic of blocs.
In addition to firm condemnations of the war in Ukraine and a failed attempt to meet with the Chinese leader, the Supreme Pontiff also gave a powerful speech to the leaders of Kazakhstan on political reforms and good governance. This discourse might not impact the ongoing political transformation of Kazakhstan, but it illustrates how the Bishop of Rome does not hesitate to engage with politics and provide timely support.
Reinforcing Interreligious Dialogue
Nonetheless, we must first look at the main goal of the papal trip. Pope Francis came to Kazakhstan to participate in an interreligious gathering organized by the Kazakh state. This papal positioning is indeed fairly new. Of course, since the second council of the Vatican (1962-1965), the Catholic Church has underscored the value of other religious traditions, which all reflect a ray of the Truth of God. Either at local or global levels, Catholics are called to cultivate interreligious dialogue and harmony. The Vatican itself has been active on that front, organizing large events like the interreligious peace meeting in Assisi with Pope John-Paul II in 1986.
But until recently, popes would convene interreligious activities while not participating in events organized by others. With Pope Francis, however, the Sovereign Pontiff is making himself one among others. As his upcoming visit to Bahrain illustrates, Pope Francis is willing to be a guest joining the efforts of other religious leaders. In 2019, he visited Abu Dhabi and, along with Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb, co-signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.
In this transformation of the Catholic Church, Asia takes on specific importance. Unlike other regions marked by religious binarism – Islam versus Christianity, Catholicism versus Protestantism, Christianity versus Secularism – most Asian societies are rooted in a variety of religious traditions.
Kazakhstan hosts many religions even though 70 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, and mostly Sunni Islam. Orthodox Christianity, mainly Russian Orthodox, is the religion for 26 percent of the population, and Catholics of German, Lithuanian, and Polish descent make up 1.5 percent. Buddhist, Baha’i and Jewish communities are also present in the country. Yet Kazakhstan is deeply marked by a variety of ancestral beliefs and rituals that transcend official religions.
In light of this Asian diversity, the Vatican has highlighted the importance of the continent for interreligious relations. Many Asian societies have the experience and resources to foster interreligious coexistence and dialogue. And to help the Catholic Church to benefit from it, Francis has recently created more Asian cardinals. Asia is now overrepresented in the college of cardinals and the top leadership of Global Catholicism is most likely to pay even more attention to interreligious issues.
Supporting the Kazakh State
That said, Pope Francis specifically visited Kazakhstan, a country that deserves attention on its own. Over the past century, Central Asia has been often marginalized – an issue particularly important for Pope Francis. Part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan became independent in 1991. Since then, it has gradually reworked its political culture of authoritarianism and corruption while multiplying international partnerships to reinforce its autonomy.
Last January, violent protests were raised against political nepotism and suppressed with the help of Russian soldiers. At least 250 people were killed and 10,000 arrested. Yet in spite of what many observers imply, the country is not a puppet state of its powerful neighbors.
With the current war in Eastern Europe, however, Kazakhstan is suffering. Since many of its migrant workers are based in Russia, their capacity to send remittances has drastically declined. The war also calls into question the peaceful coexistence between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, who constitute 22 percent of the population in Kazakhstan. On top of that, Moscow has recently questioned the sovereignty of the country leading many to believe that Kazakhstan could become a new Ukraine.
While the Holy See is highly aware of these developments, its engagement with the region is also rooted in a long history. The Church has been present since the 4th century CE, and papal envoys have visited since the 13th century. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Holy See was proactive in recognizing the independence and sovereignty of Central Asia’s republics. And for those emergent states, a global actor like the Vatican stands as a resourceful partner, which not only oversees 1.3 billion believers but also advocates through various channels for issues that concern Central Asia directly.
To express this proximity, John Paul II visited Kazakhstan in 2001. Ten years after independence, the Polish Pontiff who precipitated the end of the communist block came to celebrate the rebirth of the Kazakh state and the religious revival of the region. In a country where Catholics are a small minority, the papal visit also helped to give them visibility, confidence, and legal recognition.
In this long diplomatic journey, Pope Francis is adding his own footprint. From the beginning of his papacy, the Argentinian pope has denounced how some places and people are marginalized by the world’s current economic and political order. And his trip to Central Asia comes after a long list of visits to such marginalized places: Lampedusa (Italy’s “migrant island”), Palestine, Albania, Cuba, Bangladesh, etc. His visit to Kazakhstan was a statement about fraternal proximity. For him, the region is not marginal. Rather, it is at the center of religious, cultural, political, and economic flows and deserves greater attention.
Upon his arrival, Francis gave a very political discourse to local elites, encouraging them to pursue political reforms initiated earlier this year. He strongly advocated for a better partition of power, stronger anti-corruption efforts, and freedom of expression and consciousness.
Although some Western observers interpreted this as advocacy for democracy, it was in fact public encouragement for political reforms and good governance. The Catholic Church has long shown its capacity to work with various forms of government without promoting any political regime in particular.
The War in Ukraine
With his visit to Nur-Sultan, however, the Bishop of Rome was also tackling the war in Ukraine. The Holy See has long condemned this invasion as “morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious.” At the same time, the Vatican has recurrently but unsuccessfully offered to dialogue with Putin and Patriarch Kirill, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
While Russia remains closed, the papal visit to Kazakhstan stands as a reiteration of the Catholic Church’s opposition to the “senseless and tragic war.” After sending special envoys to Ukraine, Francis has presented his trip to Central Asia as “a pilgrimage of dialogue and peace.”
During the preparation for the visit, the Vatican took the initiative to announce a possible meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. But the two have very opposite views on the war and the proper Christian response. After Pope Francis warned the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church not to be “Putin’s altar boy,” Kirill finally declined the invitation.
The Question of China
Observers have also noticed that on September 14, Pope Francis and Xi Jinping were both in the Kazakh capital. The Chinese president was there on a short state visit before heading to Uzbekistan. No encounter between the two leaders was announced. After eight centuries of difficult dialogue between the Middle Kingdom and the papacy, such a meeting would have been historic.
Yet, observers noticed that the late-afternoon agenda of Pope Francis remained empty. A few days later, an anonymous source from the Vatican confirmed that the Holy See told China that Francis was available to meet with Xi. The Chinese authorities responded that they appreciated the gesture but there was no free time on Xi’s schedule to meet with Pope Francis.
Indeed, China and the Vatican are in the midst of negotiations to renew a historic but provisional agreement signed in September 2018. The deal secures a suitable way for the two parties to select Catholic bishops in communist China. Although the exact text remains confidential, it clearly provides a framework under which the pope has the right to approve – or not – the Chinese candidates for episcopal ordination. Such a recognition – formality though it might be – represents a major shift in the religious policy of the Chinese Communist Party, which has long been very jealous of its prerogatives.
But this breakthrough came during the growing rivalry between the United States and China. And in their efforts to contain the rise of China, successive U.S. administrations have pressed the Holy See to not further negotiate with China. For the West, any Sino-Vatican progress gives additional credit to the challenging communist regime.
Nonetheless, in an interview given to Reuters last July, Pope Francis clearly said that he hopes to see the agreement renewed. Soon after, Vatican officials revealed that negotiations between Rome and Beijing have almost stopped for two years. China has supposedly refused to engage in any form of discussion. Regardless of whether this public disclosure was the reason for this move or not, at the end of August, Beijing allowed a papal delegation to briefly return to China for additional talks.
Although Pope Francis failed to meet Xi, he remains obviously committed to China – a question particularly important for a Jesuit like him. From the center of Asia, the Bishop of Rome seeks to weave diplomatic bridges in all directions. The Argentinian pope is not afraid to be humiliated by a refused outstretched hand and demonstrates his capacity to act as Sovereign Pontiff willing to go beyond any political anathema.
From Mongolia to the World
But this single papal trip must not overshadow the broader diplomatic efforts of the Vatican. In late August, Giorgio Marengo, a 48-year-old Italian missionary who has spent the past 20 years in Mongolia, was appointed as a cardinal – the first to represent Mongolia.
Church observers have broadly commented on the age of the new prelate, but less on his spirituality. In a scholarly book that he recently published, Marengo presents missionary work as the whispering of the Gospel. Evangelization is not about converting everyone but revealing the gentleness of God. Engaged in dialogue with Buddhist monks and shamanic traditions, the young cardinal illustrates the strategic transformation of the Catholic Church. Now standing as the highest Catholic authority in the region, Marengo is most likely to help local communities support interreligious dialogue.
One additional aspect that has not been commented on is the nationality of the new Mongolian prelate, a point that concerned some chancelleries. Marengo is from Italy. Likewise, in Central Asia, most clergy members are from abroad. However, over the past century, the Vatican has generally accommodated national sentiments and appointed only national citizens to local offices. The archbishop of Paris is a French citizen; the archbishop of Washington is an American-born citizen. But the Christian message remains universal and the Catholic Church is an international structure that needs to work with local resources while expressing the worldwide fraternity of Christianity.
Therefore, when the Holy See appoints a European to the highest position of the Mongolian Church – while giving him a red hat that reinforces his authority – it may stir uncomfortable national sentiments in Asia and beyond.
Not surprisingly, in an interview given in early September, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin felt the need to specify that the Sino-Vatican agreement “aimed at ensuring that all bishops in the country are in communion with the Pope, and are fully Chinese and fully Catholic.”
Supporting Local Catholics
A final event that deserves attention is the creation of the Bishops’ Conference of Central Asia. Established by the Holy See on September 8, 2021, this platform seeks to facilitate coordination and mutual support among Catholic leaders and institutions of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In a region where Catholics are rare, creating institutions to help scattered communities is essential.
Yet, the region also hosts a growing Muslim majority concerned – not without reason – about Christian proselytism. To prevent misunderstanding, local Catholics have long worked at underlining the long Christian history of the region, as well as their ethnic background. Many came to the region because of Stalinist deportations. And despite the current decline of the Catholic population – mostly because of out-migration – Catholicism strongly discourages antagonistic proselytism.
Instead, the Catholic Church has worked at building trust with local authorities and populations while providing pastoral support to local churchgoers. The paradox is that although the Holy See has been proactive in establishing diplomatic relationships with the various states of the region, it has also been cautious when establishing local parishes, dioceses, or other administrative structures typical of Global Catholicism.
The very humble number of Catholics does not always allow the viability of those basic ecclesial structures. But the ongoing reconstruction of national and religious identities requires tact. Those ethnically diverse societies and their recently established states are still defining their ways to be cohesive. In their search for national unity and identity, religion can be sensitive. Therefore, instead of establishing ecclesial structures hastily, the Holy See waited more than 30 years before creating a regional bishop’s conference.