“How can we keep the spirit of Assisi alive?”, asks Almaty bishop

Pope Francis will be participating in the seventh edition of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, from 14 to 15 September, in Nur-Sultan. According to Bishop José Luis Mumbiela Sierra, of the Diocese of the Holy Trinity, in Almaty, this event traces its roots to the first prayer meeting organised by Pope John Paul II, in Assisi.

During an online conference organised by Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Mumbiela, who is also president of the Bishops’ Conference of Central Asia, spoke of the importance of the congress and about the country which will be hosting the Holy Father. This is a summary of the questions which the bishop answered during the conference.

Pope Francis, a Catholic leader, is about to visit a country that has a Muslim majority (70%), with 25% Christians, only 1% of whom are Catholics. What is the meaning of this trip?

Following the sad incidents of violence that Kazakhstan suffered at the beginning of this year, the Pope is coming to tell us that we are not alone, that we need to keep moving forward. The Pope told the president that he greatly values all that Kazakhstan has done to work for peace and harmony, and that he is coming as a show of support. Pope Francis’ visit is more than just a show of support for the government, it extends to the whole country. This year we are celebrating thirty years of independence and of our Constitution. This is support for a quest for the identity of this country, according to certain values, including religious harmony.

Bishop José Luis Mumbiela Sierra
Bishop José Luis Mumbiela Sierra

And what does it mean to the minority of Catholics in the country?

Throughout its history Kazakhstan has been a crossroads for many different peoples and cultures. So, there are many different experiences, depending on each community’s exposure to Christianity. In general, however, there is an atmosphere of great joy, like a family celebration. For us the Pope is not only a head of state, he is more than just the leader of the Vatican, much more. We are hosting somebody who is very close to us all, a father. The people of this country love the Popes, regardless of who they are.

Kazakhstan has changed a lot since John Paul II’s historic visit, 21 years ago. Who are the Catholics who will be greeting the Pope when he arrives?

A large proportion of the Catholics live in the north of the country, where there is a Polish majority. In the larger cities there is a bigger mix of people. For example, there are many Koreans, from past deportations, who are Catholic. There are also people from non-Christian populations who converted to Catholicism. It is like a river that keeps flowing, because people are attracted by the Church’s message. They are not attracted by the fact that we speak marvellous Russian, or because we have some sort of magical flute, no, they are led by their hearts, not because of our great virtues, but by the Grace of God.

pilgrimage
Pilgrimage of a group in the Archdiocese of Astana

Francis is traveling to take part in the 7th edition of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, an initiative of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, which began in 2003. What makes this meeting so important?

I believe we can say that the roots of this congress can be found in the meetings organised by John Paul II in Assisi, the first of which took place in 1986. At the time the Pope invited representatives of different religions to pray together for peace. I believe that Nazarbayev’s idea sprang from that. How to keep the spirit of Assisi alive? How to keep that spirit, that flame, that intention, going over time? Many, even inside the Catholic Church, argued about this at the time, saying that the gathering of different religious leaders was a source of relativism, and so on. However, John Paul II acted from a global perspective. He called them together as a shepherd among shepherds, who was looking out for the good of all humanity, not only the Catholics.

What can we expect from this congress?

I believe that this congress has managed to fulfil its objectives quite well over the years. The goal is that all religions commit to world peace. We need to clean up religion’s image, recover the true sense of religion. Pope Francis is sounding a wake-up call, not striking a hammer, he is lovingly telling us to “reopen the door to this hope”. Let us show that religion is a path to peace.

Can this congress improve dialogue between the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches, which has been the centre of so much attention lately?

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow will not be coming, but he is sending a delegation. Dialogue with the Orthodox Church in general continues, and even dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church has not stalled. So, I think that it will have a positive effect. If people are coming, it is because there is an attitude of dialogue, that spirit has not been destroyed. In my opinion, too much attention has been given by the media to the fact that the Patriarch will not be attending.

Kazakhstan was a destination for many deportations, from the time of the Tsars until Stalinism, and at one point was home to 11 detention camps. Do you believe the Pope will visit any of these locations?

When the Vatican asked us bishops to make suggestions for the programme of the Pope’s visit, one of them was to go to Karaganda and visit some of the sites of Soviet repression. However, the Pope’s health clearly doesn’t give him much leeway, he is very limited. The Government made some proposals, and the bishops made others, but we were told that the Pope had to keep his movement and meetings to a minimum. What we do know is that he will be meeting with some religious leaders.

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