100 years ago, on May 18, 1920, Karol Józef Wojtyła was born in the Polish town of Wadowice.
Leading the Catholic Church since October 1978, Pope John Paul II left a bright and indelible mark in the history of mankind and cherished memories in the hearts of millions of people.
Ryszard Czarnecki is a Member of the European Parliament (Poland) and Chairman of the Kazakhstan-EU Friendship Group.
Altai Abibullaev is the Chairman of the Board of N.Nazarbayev Center for Development of Interfaith and Intercivilization Dialogue (Kazakhstan).
Historians will continue to ponder the secrets of his truly great personality, that led the whole community of the Catholic Church, influenced the political decisions of heads of state, earned particularly high respect of the leaders of other religions, and had a well-established authority throughout the globe, including popularity among youth.
19 years ago, on September 22, 2001, the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II paid a historic visit to Kazakhstan.
The official visit of John Paul II – “a person, a humanist, a philosopher and a sage,” as described by the First President of Kazakhstan – Nursultan Nazarbayev, took place on Kazakhstan’s 10th Anniversary of its independence and became a unique event in the international political scene, having played an invaluable role in establishing inter-civilisation, interreligious and interfaith dialogue, as well as strengthening the dialogue and partnership between Kazakhstan and the Vatican.
The first words of the Pope, spoken on Kazakh soil, were very emotional. These were words of thanksgiving to God “who guided my steps to the capital of this noble and boundless country, located in the very heart of Central Asia.”
Pope John Paul II said the following beautiful words about Kazakhstan and its people: “Looking at the colors of your national flag, I ask the Almighty for you those gifts that your flag symbolizes–firmness and openness, the symbol of which is blue, prosperity and peace, as indicated by gold”.
His Holiness took the first steps towards all the traditional religions of the world.
Already then, John Paul II had the courage to share his vision of the peaceful coexistence of nations. He spoke with Muslim youth about the Unity of God, that the 21st Century should not be conflict-filled, and the peoples of the whole world must unite and forgive each other.
He said that “Christians and Muslims have a lot in common, and a dialogue between the Muslim and Christian worlds today is needed more than ever.” His belief that Muslims and Christians can and should create a “civilization built on love” is absolutely true and indisputable.
For Kazakh society, religious traditions and the historic background of various ethnic groups have always served as a bridge of mutual interest that naturally unite communities, contribute to the formation of human self-realization, and foster respect and tolerance towards other peoples, their culture and traditions.
Since ancient times, Kazakhstan has served as a bridge between the East and the West at the “crossroads of civilisations,” and has developed deep and strong spiritual roots. A variety of faiths and religious traditions were born and developed in its lands.
Today Kazakhstan, with a population of 18.6 million, is a common home for representatives of more than 135 ethnic groups and 18 denominations.
Kazakhstan serves as a model of how people from different backgrounds, faiths and ethnic groups can live in peace and harmony.
In the early years of Kazakhstan’s independence, religious associations – equipped with the role of civil society institutions, became important partners to the state in the revival of spiritual values and the development of ethics in civil society.
For three decades, Kazakhstan has developed a new statehood and its unique model of a secular state, distinguished by active state policy to form unique interreligious and interfaith harmony.
In Kazakhstan’s model of social development, special emphasis is placed on the merits of religious figures who contribute to the consolidation and unity of Kazakh society. It is thanks to their valuable contributions, that the state policy on religion has undergone a transformation from denial of religion and the fight against it – to a partnership with major denominations.
That is also why, in the political arena, Kazakhstan and the Vatican are active supporters of disarmament, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and a comprehensive ban of nuclear tests. John Paul II has repeatedly emphasized the relevance and necessity of international cooperation, so that “the walls of separation are destroyed and conflicts are overcome.”
Kazakhstan has put forward a number of world-renowned initiatives aimed at countering the threats of war and terrorism, and at strengthening trust and cooperation between the global international community.
Contrary to the forecasts of many experts that the region would face a clash of civilisations, Kazakhstan’s leadership was able to prove the opposite.
Two years after the historic visit of John Paul II to Kazakhstan, at the initiative of the founding father of modern Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, on September 23-24, 2003, the I Congress of Leaders of Traditional and World Religions took place in Astana. This event gathered the most authoritative representatives of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Shinto, Hinduism and Buddhism.
The idea of the Congress was supported by many influential global leaders such as Kofi Annan, George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Jiang Zemin, Nelson Mandela, J. d’Estaing, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Ban Ki-moon and many others.
From the first days, the Vatican has also been a consistent and active participant in the Congress at a high level.
Today, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s unique idea towards advancing the world’s interfaith dialogue continues and develops in line with the consistent work of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. President Tokayev built an effective system of organisational, ideological and conceptual components of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, and practically created the fundamental basis of this global interfaith dialogue platform during his Chairmanship of the Senate of the Parliament and as Head of the Secretariat of the Congress,
The credo of the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on maintaining continuity in such an important matter as strengthening interreligious and inter-civilisational dialogue, spiritual diplomacy of Kazakhstan, and popularising the ideas and decisions of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions is an unshakable constant in Kazakhstan’s reality.
A special role in this ongoing dynamic process is played by the world’s traditional religions, which are symbols of the spiritual core of humanity and enduring age-old values - love and goodness, harmony and tolerance, mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
Catholicism itself in Kazakhstan has a long history. The Catholic Church continues and renews those cultural and spiritual relations that were developed in the distant past. The Catholic community in Kazakhstan is thriving and has its own successes. For instance, just recently, the Vatican has elevated St. Joseph Church in Karaganda, Kazakhstan to the status of a minor basilica, marking the installation of the first minor basilica in Central Asia. St. Joseph Church was named a minor basilica due to its great beauty and historical significance to the Catholic community it continues to serve.
The unity of this community was demonstrated during the Pontiff’s visit to Kazakhstan in 2001 when around forty thousand pilgrims gathered from Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Belarus and other countries for the Pope’s Holy Mass on the “Motherland Square”.
Then, the Pontiff read a sermon saying he was among those gathered as “an apostle and witness of Christ, as a friend of every man of good will.”
His heartfelt speech to the youth about their role in building the future, delivered at the Gumilyov University touched the hearts of university students.
“It is in my prayers that Kazakhstan can draw more and more power from its rich spiritual cultural heritage and, thus, be able to respond to many challenges facing this country at a new stage of its development. May the Almighty God bless Kazakhstan, its efforts to create a society firmly based on respect for the rights and dignity of each individual and all peoples.” These words will go down in the annals of Kazakh history.
These unforgettable words spoken by John Paul II at the meeting in Astana acquire a deeper moral and spiritual meaning as time goes by.
Being one of the most influential personalities in the world, the head of the Catholic Church paid tribute to the pain of the past and those who serve society today: he visited the monument to the victims of the totalitarian regime, met with workers in culture and science, and welcomed Catholic ordinaries serving in Central Asian countries.
Indeed, this event of exceptional historical significance was a blessing to the people of Kazakhstan.
We in Europe and Asia will forever remember John Paul II as the greatest peacemaker and humanist, the personification of great moral strength and will, courage and wisdom.
The visit of the Pontiff to Kazakhstan became one of the brightest examples of the desire to establish a true dialogue between the West and the East, Islam and Christianity, an example of the manifestation and expression of deep respect for the historical and spiritual traditions of all peoples, a personal contribution to justice and sincerity in relations between civilizations and religions in the name of creating peace of harmony, and spirituality.