Pope Francis arrived in Kazakhstan on Tuesday to attend an international religious gathering, but said he was also in the country on a “pilgrimage of dialogue and peace”.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said it was a “great honor” to welcome the Pope, who is on his 38th trip abroad since his election in 2013.
Tokayev is an ally of Russia but has refused to support Moscow’s war of aggression in Ukraine. The presence of a significant Russian community in northern Kazakhstan has fueled fears that the Kremlin may have imperial ambitions in the area.
What did the Pope say?
“I visit you in the course of the senseless and tragic war that broke out with the invasion of Ukraine, even as other conflicts and threats of conflict continue to endanger our time,” Pope Francis said.
“I have come to reiterate the plea of all those who cry out for peace, which is the essential path to development for our globalized world.”
The pope said he urged to step up diplomatic efforts to promote dialogue.
“Now is the time to stop intensifying rivalry and strengthening opposing blocs. We need leaders who, at the international level, can empower people to grow in mutual understanding and dialogue.”
The pope also reaffirmed that Russia is responsible for the war in Ukraine, something he had previously criticized for not doing when the Russian invasion began.
Traditionally, the Pope sends greetings to the capitals of the countries he flies over. However, his flight from Rome to the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan avoided Russian airspace, meaning he didn’t send one to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Why is the Pope in Kazakhstan?
Pope Francis visits Kazakhstan to participate in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which begins Wednesday. About 100 delegations from about 50 countries are involved in the two-day meeting.
The Vatican had hoped the event would allow a meeting between the pope and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, a staunch defender of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
However, that won’t happen after the Russian religious leader has waived the trip to Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan, with a population of some 19 million, is home to a small community of approximately 125,000 Catholics. About 70% of Kazakhs are Muslim while about 26% are Orthodox Christians.
A simultaneous visit to Kazakhstan by Chinese President Xi Jinping has sparked speculation about a possible historic meeting between the two, although there was no indication that it would take place.
The pope has brushed aside talk that he is considering stepping down due to health problems, including a bad knee that requires frequent wheelchair use.
rc/wd (dpa, TBEN)