Kazakhstan, Frontier Church. Religious harmony in the face of radicalism

With a large Muslim majority, Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia, gives preferential treatment to four religious groups - Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics and Jews - because it considers them traditional. With tolerance and harmony, it avoids radical Islamism.

Antonio Alonso Marcos-September 1, 2017-Reading time: 5 minutes
Astana city center.

"Dear brothers, I encourage you to continue the work you have undertaken, wisely valuing the contributions of all. I take this opportunity to thank the priests and religious who work in the various ecclesiastical circumscriptions, in particular the Franciscans in the Diocese of the Most Holy Trinity in Almaty, the Jesuits in Kyrgyzstan, the Conventual Franciscans in Uzbekistan, the religious of the Institute of the Incarnate Word in the missio sui iuris in Tajikistan, and to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the missio sui iuris in Turkmenistan": chese were the words that Benedict XVI used to bid farewell to the bishops of Central Asia during their visit ad limina in 2008. 

The Kazakh state has stressed since its inception 25 years ago that in order to maintain social peace it is necessary to strictly observe religious harmony, mutual respect between faiths. 

Thus, in a country with a large Muslim majority -11 out of 16 million inhabitants-, the relationship with the other religions and Christian confessions -Orthodox (5 million), Catholics, etc.- is excellent, and the country's authorities try to preserve religious plurality. It is good for the government that Orthodox, Catholics and Jews are working there, because it slows down and prevents the arrival of radical Islamism. 

The Church in Kazakhstan is therefore a minority, dedicated mainly to serving Catholics scattered throughout the country. It can carry out its activities normally, but ad intraThe company has no external manifestations, although there is the possibility of intervening on television or being invited to speak at the university, for example. 

Although there are no reliable official statistics, it is estimated that there are about 200,000 Catholics in the country, concentrated mainly in the north (in the dioceses of Astana and Karaganda) and in the south (in the diocese of Almaty), where more deportees arrived during the Stalin era. 

The variations in the number of believers depend, to a large extent, on the number of children that Catholics have, since in these lands, religion is understood more as a cultural issue (inheritance) than as a personal decision. For this reason, cases of conversion from one religion to another are rare, as are cases of atheism. 


In Kazakhstan, about 90 priests - including religious - carry out their priestly ministry, assisted by more than 100 nuns of many different nationalities: Kazakh, Polish, Korean, Italian, German, Slovak, Indian, etc.

There are three dioceses and an apostolic administration in the west. In the north, St. Mary's in Astana, ruled by Archbishop Peta, assisted by Auxiliary Bishop Schneider. In the south, Holy Trinity, in Almaty, ruled since 2011 by Bishop Mombiela, who presides over the bishops' conference; in the center, Karaganda, with Bishop Del 'Oro; in the west, the Apostolic Administration of Atyrau, ruled by Father Buras.

The Almaty diocese has several parishes: Almaty (cathedral), Kapchigay, Taldikorgan, Taraz and Shimkent, one in each city. And near Kapchigay, there are two priests who are trying to recover the parishes of two villages: Nura (Polish majority) and Yetichen (mainly Koreans). 

There are two Marian shrines in Kazakhstan, one in Oziornoye and the other in Karaganda. The National Shrine of St. Mary, Queen of Peace, in Oziornoye, is dedicated to the miracle that Our Lady performed when she appeared to a group of starving deportees, pointing them to a hidden or inconspicuous place in the steppe where there was plenty of fish and thus they were saved. The one in Karaganda is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Fatima.

In the cathedral of Karaganda is buried the recently beatified Polish priest Vladislav Bukovinski, who died in 1974 having spent 14 years in various concentration camps during the harshest years of communism. 

Bishop Aleksander Jira, who is in the process of beatification, is also buried there. At that time, the priests had to exercise their ministry in secret and were sometimes denounced and arrested; today religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws of the country.

Presence of Catholic institutions

On the other hand, various religious congregations, movements and prelatures are active in Kazakhstan. Among others, Opus Dei has been in Almaty since 1997, a diocese where Communion and Liberation is also present. Families of the Neocatechumenal Way are located in different parts of the country. 

The Franciscans run the cathedral parish of Almaty and the parish of Taldikorgan, a city 260 kilometers from Almaty. The Incarnate Word Missionaries run the parish of Shimkent, where Incarnate Word Sisters also work. The Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta have a house in Almaty. In Kapchigay, the Handmaids of the Immaculate Virgin Mary (Polish congregation) have a home for orphaned and abandoned children. Finally, there are two Discalced Carmelite monasteries in the north, one in Karaganda and the other in Oziornoye. 

Thirteen priests from Kazakhstan are currently working in Kazakhstan, 5 of them in the diocese of Karaganda, 7 in the diocese of Astana and 1 in the Apostolic Administration of Attirau; two of the bishops of Russia are also Kazakhs, namely the bishop of Novosibirsk and the bishop of Irkust; and a few other Kazakh-born priests are ministering in other countries, such as France and Germany. In the interdiocesan seminary of Karaganda, the only one in the country, there are 5 or 6 Kazakh seminarians and 4 from other nearby countries. 

First evangelization

The first Christians appeared in Central Asia around the third century, along the Silk Road. The Nestorians made an important contribution to the evangelization of Central Asia. In the 13th century Christians in these territories reached their peak with the arrival of Franciscan and Dominican missionaries, who built monasteries in those boundless spaces. At the same time, the first bishops appeared on the scene. Diplomatic relations were established between the Holy See and the Great Khan and other rulers of the Central Asian states.

Pope Nicholas III tried to organize the young church and gave it a diocesan structure. He entrusted the mission to the Franciscan Gerard of Prato in 1278. Unfortunately, progressive Islamic advances halted Christianization in Central Asia. The rulers favorable to Christianity were dethroned and a dynasty hostile to Christians was installed. The missionary work of the Franciscans came to a sudden end in 1342, when Khan Ali destroyed the episcopal monastery in the city of Almalik and sentenced the Franciscan bishop Richard de Burgandy, his five Franciscan brothers and a Latin merchant to death for refusing to abjure their Christian faith. 

With the socialist revolution of October 1917, the Catholic Church in Russia experienced the most horrific persecution under the bloody and bloody communist machine. Multitudes of Catholics were deported to the steppes of Central Asia, and there many of them met their death. Other Catholics managed to survive and became, thanks to Stalin, the embryo of what is today the Catholic Church in these lands.

With the dissolution of the USSR, the Holy See established diplomatic relations in 1992 with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and in 1996 with Tajikistan (there was a civil war between 1992 and 1997). The high point of the Catholic presence there was the visit of John Paul II at the end of September 2001.

Holy Rosary and Eucharist

The most widespread devotion is the recitation of the Holy Rosary. In Soviet times, the practice of praying the rosary was a way to keep the faith and the spirit of prayer alive in the absence of priests and the prohibition of having religious objects or literature. 

Another widespread devotion is Eucharistic adoration, with the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament before Holy Mass. In the Cathedral of Astana a permanent exposition of the Blessed Sacrament has been carried out for years, in which the whole diocese participates, since faithful from all the parishes come according to a schedule and shifts already established beforehand.


Kyrgyzstan's legislative framework is similar to that of Kazakhstan, with great respect for religious freedom. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan is, from a constitutional point of view, the most democratic in the region, although, unfortunately, not the most stable, as it has undergone several revolutions. From the point of view of canon law, it was erected as a missio sui iuris in 1997. The current Apostolic Administrator is a Jesuit, Slovenian Janez Mihelcic.

The authorAntonio Alonso Marcos

Professor Universidad CEU San Pablo

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