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Kazakhstan: Pope Continues Visit Amid Regional Tension

  • Kathleen Moore

Pope John Paul II's latest foreign visit is taking place in the aftermath to the 21 September terrorist attacks on the United States. He's in Kazakhstan today for the third day of a visit to a region that more than most will be affected in the event of military action in close-by Afghanistan. Tomorrow, he heads to Armenia for celebrations marking the country's adoption of Christianity as the state religion 1,700 years ago. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports on the significance of this, his 95th trip outside Italy.

Prague, 24 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul II's trip to Kazakhstan has taken on a new significance in the wake of the recent devastating terrorist attacks that killed thousands in the United States.

Kazakhstan is just several hundred kilometers from Afghanistan, and could be caught up in events if the U.S. launches military action at targets there. Afghanistan is home to suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, who the U.S. believes masterminded the attacks.

The pope's secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, stayed in Rome to follow developments, reflecting how seriously the Vatican views the situation in the wake of the attacks.

And the timing of the pope's visit even led to reports -- since denied by the Vatican -- that the United States had promised to hold off on any military action while the pope was in the region.

The pope did not address directly the prospect of retaliatory strikes during his mass in Astana yesterday. But he appealed for religious harmony and urged followers of all religions to work together to build a world without violence:

"We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions. Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict."

The pope spoke of what he called the "logic of love" that brings Christians and Muslims together, and at a meeting of Kazakh intellectuals today he stressed the respect the Catholic Church has for Islam.

Aside from pleas for religious harmony, the pope paid tribute to those in Kazakhstan persecuted in Soviet days for their religion. Catholics were among millions of people from around the Soviet Union exiled to Kazakhstan during the 1940s, many of them imprisoned in Gulags throughout the sprawling territory. Mainly Muslim Kazakhstan is now home to some 300,000 Catholics.

And there was also a personal dimension to the visit. The pope paid homage to a friend from his days as a young Polish priest, Vladislav Bukovinsky, who served time in labor camps but preached clandestinely on his release.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev today thanked Pope John Paul for going ahead with the visit at this tense time:

"We're pleased [that the visit is going ahead] and grateful for him for visiting our country as the first one in the Commonwealth of Independent States, the first in the region."

Christopher Herden is an editor with the Catholic weekly "The Tablet." He places the visit in the context of the pope's efforts to bring the Muslim and Christian faiths closer together and says this message of tolerance between religions is especially significant now.

"Of course, it's taken on a much greater significance in the last two weeks. There was considerable pressure on him in Rome to call it off because of the proximity of Kazakhstan to areas that might come under American and British bombing. But typically, courageously, he refused to have anything to do with calling it off. It's more important, he thinks, to go through with it in a moment of crisis when the message he's bringing, of reconciliation, becomes even more important."

Herden says the pope is attempting to make as many visits as possible while he still can:

"Again I return to this question of interreligious dialogue. He sees a need there, for an example somewhere in the world, of a leader of a major religion reconciling his church with Islam. It's most important."

Tomorrow the pope heads to another country with relatively few Catholics when he begins a visit to Armenia to take part in celebrations marking 1,700 years of Christianity there.

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a national religion, thanks to Saint Gregory the Illuminator's conversion of King Trdat III in 301.

For most of the time since, the Armenian Apostolic Church and Rome have been divided by a dispute over the nature of Christ.

The controversy sprang from the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which laid down a doctrine stating that Jesus had two natures, the human and the divine.

Dissenters, including Armenian Christians, taught that Jesus had only one -- divine -- nature. The dispute split the church and the belief came to be known to Rome as the monophysite heresy.

But the churches remain close. A 1996 declaration between the Pope and Karekin I -- then head of the Armenian Apostolic Church -- went some way toward resolving the theological dispute.

The pope will stay with Karekin I's successor, Catholicos Karekin II, at his residence and they will deliver speeches and impart blessings together.

The pope will also celebrate Mass on the same altar used for liturgies of the Apostolic Church, which has several million followers at home and abroad.

The Vatican says the visit is of great importance and sees it as an example of ecumenism that it hopes can be extended to other churches.

Herden says this visit marks another step in the process of bringing the churches closer together:

"While in all important aspects the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church regard themselves as being of one mind, they are not yet united. What the pope must be looking for, and indeed the Armenian Catholics must be looking for, is some formal union or reunion of their churches."

Herden says he expects the issue will come up for discussion, though this is far down the road. But he says the these efforts are important from the Orthodox perspective, too:

"If the Orthodox Church sees the Apostolic Church uniting with the Catholic Church, perhaps this will bring the Orthodox closer to Catholicism also. I think this must be on their minds."

Russia's Orthodox Church has rebuffed papal wishes to visit Russia and accuses the Catholic Church in general of trying to poach believers.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)