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Congress of World Religions Kicks Off in Kazakhstan amid Pope Francis’ Visit

By Vusala Abbasova September 14, 2022

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The two-day interreligious event kicked off on Wednesday in Kazakhstan's capital of Nur-Sultan.

Government officials and spiritual leaders from around the globe gathered this week in Kazakhstan for the seventh Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.

The two-day interreligious event themed “The Role of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Spiritual and Social Development of Human Civilization in the Post-Pandemic Period” kicked off on Wednesday in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan.

With more than 100 delegations from more than 50 countries, a worldwide platform for the development of interconfessional and inter-civilization dialogue features discussions to promote peace and concrete commitments on the part of religious leaders. The attendees of the Congress include representatives of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and other religions, including the Head of the Catholic Church Pope Francis, Egypt’s Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, and Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem.

Before attending the Congress, Pope Francis met President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the country’s authorities, civil servants, and diplomatic corps.

In his address to the Congress, the pontiff said that God does not guide religions towards war, an implicit criticism of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who backs the invasion of Ukraine and has boycotted a conference of faith leaders. 

“God is peace. He guides us always in the way of peace, never that of war,” Pope Francis said. 

“Let us commit ourselves, then, even more to insisting on the need for resolving conflicts not by the inconclusive means of power, with arms and threats, but by the only means blessed by heaven and worthy of man: encounter, dialogue, and patient negotiations,” he added.

Within his three-day visit, the 85-year-old pope was supposed to meet Patriarch Kirill, the spiritual head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who should have joined the interreligious event but later pulled out, dashing hopes of a meeting over the Ukraine conflict.

While Pope Francis has called for peace and denounced a “cruel and senseless war,” Kirill has given enthusiastic backing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the fight against Russia’s “external and internal enemies.” Kirill’s stance has caused a rift with the Vatican and unleashed an internal rebellion that has led to the severing of ties by some local Orthodox Churches with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Meanwhile, as part of his visit to Kazakhstan, Pope Francis will conduct an open-air holy mass for Roman Catholics and representatives of other religions and confessions at EXPO square. 

The brainchild of Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Congress was first held in 2003 and takes place in Kazakhstan’s capital city once every three years. In Kazakhstan, a Muslim-majority country, religious traditions of various ethnic groups have become a bridge that unites various communities and builds cohesion across the country.

The Kazakhstani constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief, as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation altogether.

With a population of slightly more than 19 million, the former Soviet republic is home to more than 135 ethnicities, including ethnic Kazakhs, which make up 70 percent of the population. Russians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Tatars, Germans, Koreans, and Azerbaijanis are all present in the country, along with other minorities. Roughly 72 percent of Kazakhstan’s population is Muslim, while more than 23 percent of Kazakhstanis are Christian, predominantly Russian Orthodox.