Why Pope Francis chose to highlight religious freedom during his visit to Kazakhstan

Pope Francis spent three days in Kazakhstan, starting Sept. 13, 2022, to attend the Seventh Congress of World and Traditional Religions. The pope met with religious leaders, called for increased religious freedom and condemned religious justifications for war and violence.

The pope’s appeal for peace in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan was especially significant in light of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, which he called “senseless.”

Most Christians in Kazakhstan belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, has justified the Russian invasion as a moral crusade. Francis had hoped to meet with Kirill, who chose not to attend the congress. In Kirill’s absence, Francis addressed his remarks to the Russian Orthodox delegation.

As a scholar who has spent over 30 years studying Christianity in the former Soviet Union, I’ve followed the pope’s visit with keen interest. He has chosen to highlight the causes of peace and religious freedom – matters of particular concern to Kazakhstan’s Catholic minority.

Christianity in Kazakhstan

Although Kazakhstan is predominantly Muslim, over 4 million Kazakhstanis profess Christianity. This represents over a quarter of the country’s total population of 19 million. Over 80% of Kazakhstan’s Christians are ethnic Russians.

Christian missionaries brought their gospel to Central Asia as early as the third century after Christ. By the seventh century, Christians had established important centers along the Silk Road, the trading routes from China to Constantinople.

The Assyrian Church of the East, a branch of Christianity that developed in the Persian Empire, had a significant presence on the territory of Kazakhstan well into the 12th century.

After the Muslim conquest of Central Asia in the seventh and eighth centuries, Christianity slowly lost influence and began a long decline. In the 14th century, Franciscan missionaries from Italy briefly created a diocese in today’s southeastern Kazakhstan.

The Russian conquest

In the 17th century, Russia began its expansion into Siberia and the northern Kazakh steppes. Cossack soldiers, who belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church, established military outposts, where they also practiced their faith. In addition, the “Old Believers” – religious dissenters who broke with the official Orthodox church over ritual questions – fled to Siberia and northern Kazakhstan to escape persecution. Old Believers continue to maintain their communities in eastern Kazakhstan’s Altay Mountains.

The Russian conquest of Central Asia in 1860s and 1870s further increased the numbers of Christian settlers in the region. In 1871, the Russian Orthodox Church established the Diocese of Turkestan, which included much of today’s Kazakhstan. The diocesan center was the town of Vernyi, which is now called Almaty and is Kazakhstan’s largest city.

The Russian Orthodox Church also tried, with limited success, to convert the nomadic Kazakhs, who practiced Islam. In 1881, it created a special missionary society to preach the gospel to the Kazakhs. The mission translated the Bible and some liturgical texts into Kazakh. Despite these efforts, most Kazakhs remained Muslim.

Seeking new farmland, German Mennonites and Russian evangelical Christians settled in Kazakhstan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These colonists established a Protestant presence in this increasingly diverse territory.

Religion in Soviet Kazakhstan

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the imperial government, ushered in a period of severe anti-religious persecution. Most churches and mosques were closed by 1939. The Soviet authorities also forced the Kazakh nomads to settle in collective farms, destroying their traditional way of life.

Kazakhstan became the site of a chain of collective labor camps housing political prisoners. In campaigns of ethnic cleansing, the Soviet government deported thousands of Poles and Germans to Kazakhstan in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of Kazakhstan’s small community of Catholics, which numbers about 125,000, descends from these deportees.

Religious persecution today