By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

From September 13- 15 Pope Francis visited the capital of Kazakhstan (Nur-Sultan, Astana) in order to address the 7th Congress of “World Religious Leaders and Traditional Religions” as well as use the occasion to speak in the Kazakh capital with President Tokayev and representatives of his government as well as from civil society. In midst of the raging war the Pope used the occasion to call for a “new spirit of Helsinki” – an allusion to the Helsinki accords made in 1975 between East and West that led to the end of the Cold War. At the 7th Congress the Pope, while not being able to see Russian -Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill I, who didn’t attend contrary to original plans, was able to talk to his representative Anthony, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk. During their encounter both underlined that “there was room for dialogue that should not stop.”  It was in reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks and in reaction to Pope Paul II Assisi gathering of world religious leaders 2002, that the Kazakh government in 2003 had  called every three years the leaders of world and traditional religions to attend the congress in Nur-Sultan. Almost 800 delegates attended the congress this year.   

Upon his arrival in Nur- Sultan, capital of Kazakhstan September 13th , the Pontiff in an address to President Tokayev and Kazakhstan government authorities as well a civilian society leaders underlined the motto of his visit: That he had “come as a pilgrim of peace, seeking dialogue and unity. Our world urgently needs peace and needs to recover harmony.” He referred to the ancient Kazkh string instrument “Dombra”, which through the centuries “has accompanied recitation of sagas and poetry”, and which is a symbol for musical harmony. Similar to his papal predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who had visited Kazakhstan in September 2001, he spoke about Kazakhstans “two souls”, “being Asiatic and European, which give it a permanent mission of linking the two continents, of being a bridge between Europe and Asia, a junction between East and West.”  

The Pope urged to revive the “spirit of Helsinki” and to create a more stable and peaceful world, by recalling the Final Act of Helsinki 1975, signed at that time in Finnish capital Helsinki by the parties to the Cold War, which had the aim to establishing international security in Europe. “We need leaders who, at the international level, promote mutual understanding and dialogue among people and the revival of the spirit of Helsinki, the desire to strengthen a multipolar world in order to build a more stable and peaceful world in caring for new generations.” (TASS News Report) This would require “understanding and patience” and the dialogue should be conducted “with everyone.” In the Finnish capital in 1975, the Helsinki Accords were signed between the USSR, almost all European countries, as well as the United States and Canada.  The signing of this document made it possible to create the ground for the development of global security and cooperation in various fields. According to Pope Francis, Kazakhstan plays an important role in conflict resolution, given that the country “is a crossroads of important geopolitical knots.”

As TASS News Report recalled, on August 23rd Pope Francis had stated that the world today is “living though World War III. Let the memory of past experiences motivate you so as to cultivate peace in yourself, in your families, in social and international life.”  In his speech to Kazakhstan’s political and civilian authorities he furthermore stressed that “the name of this great country may continue to be a synonym of harmony and peace. Kazakhstan represents a significant geopolitical crossroad, and so it has a fundamental role to play in lessening cases of conflict. (…) He emphasized that his visit to Kazakhstan occurred “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 imperil our times. I have come to echo the plea of all those who cry out or peace.” He urged that now is the time to stop intensifying rivalries and reinforcing opposing blocs. “We need leaders who on an international level, can enable peoples to grow in mutual understanding and dialogue and thus give birth to a new ‘spirit of Helsinki’, the determination to strengthen multilateralism, to build a more stable and peaceful world, with an eye to future generations. For this to happen, what is needed is understanding, patience and dialogue with all. I repeat: with all. (!)”

Always open for Dialogue

On his flight back from Kazakhstan to Rome, September 15th  Pope Francis held a press conference, in which he expressed in response to some questions, strong criticism against the West. He criticized the West for often neglecting basic values as exemplified by the euthanasia practice in various European countries and by what he called “demographic winter” (Spain, Italy or Belgium for instance). In response to a German Journalist who was asking him whether the Ukraine should be given weapons for self- defense, the Pope replied that “this is a political decision which can be morally acceptable, if it is done according to conditions of morality.” Yet he also clearly cautioned that “it can be immoral if it is done with the intention of provoking more war or selling weapons or discarding those weapons that are no longer needed.” He recalled that there are right now several wars occurring aside the Russia- Ukraine war, including the Armenia- Azerbaijan conflict, Syria, the conflict at the Horn of Africa, Northern Mozambique, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Myanmar. “But we are in a world war… please,” he stated and further strongly underlined: “War is itself a mistake; it is a mistake …  But the right to defense yes, that yes, but use it when necessary.”

A polish journalist who wanted to know if in respect to the war in Ukraine there was “a red line beyond which you should not say, we are open to dialogue with Moscow”, the Pontiff answered that “it is always difficult to understand the dialogue with the states that started a war, and it seems that the first step was from there, from that side. It is difficult, but we must not discard it; we must extend the opportunity for dialogue to everyone, to everyone! Because there is always the possibility in dialogue we can change things, and also offer another point of view, another point of consideration (…) I don’t exclude dialogue with any power, whether it’s at war, whether it’s the aggressor… sometimes dialogue has to be done in this manner, but it has to be done (…) Always one step ahead, an outstretched hand, always! Because otherwise we close off the only reasonable door to peace.” Sometimes some do not accept dialogue: too bad! But dialogue must always be done, at least offered, and this is good for those who offer it; it helps them to breathe.”

It is noteworthy that during the recent UN General Assembly Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Vatican, met Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov, by repeating the principle that had been evoked by Pope Francis during his visit in Kazakhstan, namely that “We must always engage in dialogue, because there is always the possibility that in dialogue we can change things.” 

Pope Francis addresses Congress of Religious Leaders of the World

At the Palace of Independence, in the capital of Nur-Sultan, Pope Francis gave an impressive address to the Plenary Session of the VII th “Congress of Leaders of World and traditional religions.” (14.09.) He spoke to the 800 gathered religious leaders from all over the world and greeted them as brothers and sisters “in the name of fraternity”, being “united as Children of the same Heaven”. It was remarkable  that he used the image of the “ancient Silk Road”: “We are meeting in a country traversed down the centuries by great caravans. In these lands, not least through the ancient silk route, many histories, ideas, faiths and hopes have intersected. May Kazakhstan be once more a ‘land of encounter’ between those who come from afar.  May it open a ‘new route’, centered on human relationships” , on respect, sincere dialogue, as well as on respect for the inviolable dignity of each human being and mutual cooperation. A route that is fraternal, to be travelled together towards the goal of peace.”  He particularly made reference to the Kazakh  instrument, the  “Dombra“  and to the country’s most renowned poet Abai Qunanbjuly 1845-1904),the father of its modern literature, an educator and composer, who is often portrayed with the Dombra.  

According to the Pontiff, Abai’s writings are “steeped in religious devotion and reflect the noble soul of his people.”As the Pope underlined, questions like the ones posed by the poet Abia and other poets, “point to humanity’s need for religion; they remind us that we human beings do not exist so much to satisfy earthly interest or to weave purely economic relationships, as to walk together, as wanderer with our eyes raised to the heavens.”  Abai had said that “we need to make sense of the ultimate questions, to cultivate spirituality; we need to keep the soul alive and the mind clear” (Book of word, Word 6). The Pope emphasized that “Religion is not a problem but part of a solution for a more harmonious life in society.” He further underlined that “religious freedom” is the essential condition for genuinely human and integral development.  “Religious freedom is a basic inalienable right,”  and  added that  “respectful coexistence of religious, ethnic and cultural differences is the best way to enhance the distinctive features of each, to bring people together while respecting their diversity, and to promote their loftiest aspirations without compromising their vitality.” The present meeting, as he stated, invites us to reflect on the role we are called to play in the spiritual and social development of humanity in this post- pandemic world. 

In this context he also spoke about four global challenges- among them the Covid- 19 pandemics which illustrated how mortal we all are and the need for solidarity. “This also makes clear how important it is to listen to the vulnerable and reminds us our responsibility to care for humanity in all its aspects, in particular the need to listen to the poor.”He strongly underlined that “as long as inequality and injustice continue to proliferate, there will be no end to viruses even worse than Covid: the viruses of hatred, violence and terrorism.”  

In his homily (September 14) he echoed with great passion “the need for peace dialogue  and urged “that we should never grow accustomed to war, or resign to its inevitability (…) how many deaths will it still take, before conflict yields to dialogue for the good of people, nations and all humanity? The one solution is peace and the only way to arrive at peace is through dialogue (…) May our world learn how to build peace by limiting the arms race and converting the enormous sums spent on war into concrete assistance to peoples.”

In his last address to the 7th Congress of World Religious Leaders,  Pope Francis pointed to three aspects of the final declaration of the Congress. One aspect was the call for peace. “Peace is urgently needed, because in our day every military conflict or hotspot of tension and confrontation will necessarily have a baneful ‘domino effect’ and seriously compromise the system of international relations.” He further emphasized that the final declaration of the Congress exhorts world leaders to put an end to conflicts and bloodshed everywhere, and to abandon aggressive and destructive rhetoric. “We plead to you, in the name of God and for the good of humanity: work for peace, not weapons! Only by serving the cause of peace, will you make a name for yourselves in the annals of history.” And thirdly he added that “young people are messengers of peace and unity…We should put into the hands of the young opportunities for education, not weapons if destruction.” The final declaration of the Congress, which was adopted by the majority of the Congress delegates, was sent to political leaders of the world and to the 77th UN General Assembly. 


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