Church leader: John Paul II left a legacy in Kazakhstan

Tomasz Peta in the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Astana, on 10 October 2018. [Georgi Gotev}]

This article is part of our special report Inter-religious dialogue.

Religious dialogue in the service of peace is a brainchild of the President of Kazakhstan, inspired by the visit of Pope John Paul II to Kazakhstan in September 2001, a Catholic priest who helped organize the visit told EURACTIV.

Tomasz Peta, the current Catholic Archbishop of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Saint Mary in the city of Astana, and leader of the Catholic community in Kazakhstan, said that Nazarbayev had been deeply impressed by the Pope’s visit to his country in such dramatic international circumstances – the visit took place only days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, which opened new pages in modern history.

On 23-24 September 2003, Astana hosted the first Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, in a building specially built for this purpose: a pyramid called The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Reportedly, Nazarbayev’s initiative received the support of international politicians, such as Kofi Annan, George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Jiang Zemin, Nelson Mandela, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Mikhail Gorbachev and others.

EURACTIV spoke with Peta in the margins of the sixth edition of the Congress, which takes place every three years in Astana. Both Peta and Pope John Paul II are of Polish origin.

The deportation of Catholics and their clergy to concentration camps in the country by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin caused a great increase in the Catholic population of Kazakhstan. Some of the priests later decided to help build the church in that country.

Peta was sent by his Polish diocese to work in Kazakhstan in 1990. He later became a Kazakh national. He said many of the Catholics of Polish or German origin had since left Kazakhstan, and the Catholic population of Kazakhstan stood at less than 150,000, but that it had become more ethnically diversified.

The main event of the Pontiff’s visit was the Holy Mass which was held on 24 September morning for 50.000 Catholics in the largest square of Astana. Pilgrims had come from all over Central Asia, Russia, the Baltic states, Poland and other parts of the world. More than 450 foreign journalists came to cover the event.

Peta recalled that during his visit to Kazakhstan, The Pontiff said that Kazakhstan had the mission of being a bridge between religions,  nations and continents.

Many participants to the Sixth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions held on 10-11 October praised the ethnic harmony and religious tolerance in Kazakhstan, a majority-Muslim country with strong secular traditions, citing it as an example for others to follow.

Kazakhstan’s commitment to inter-faith dialogue, by bringing together spiritual leaders to contribute to establishing a culture of peace was praised by Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, High Representative of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, with whom EURACTIV spoke as well.

The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations is an initiative proposed by the President of the Government of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, at the 59th General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005. It was co-sponsored by the then Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Al-Nasser, a Qatari diplomat, who was in Astana representing the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, said that today identity-based violence and conflicts were on the rise. He added that terrorism and violent extremists were manipulating religion, and that in this context the efforts of Kazakhstan to sustain peace and security deserved special recognition. He also paid tribute to Kazakhstan as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2017-2018.

“We have to stay alert to any manipulation of religion that leads to violent extremism”, he said. He added that in his UN role, he was active in promoting the #SpreadNoHate initiative, a platform engaging global media in an initiative to provide counter-narratives to hate speech.

Several symposia were organized worldwide, each one aiming at identifying the triggers of hate speech, and in the case of Europe, hate speech against migrants and refugees.

Al-Nasser also said there was much to do to promote the role of women, who continue to be marginalized in many societies.

“There cannot be inclusive and resilient societies without the participation of women”, he said.

Very few women were among the participants to the congress, and none of the official delegates was a women.

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