Kazakhstan – Exploratory Visit from the General Councillor for the Missions

28 May 2024

(ANS – Atyrau) – Fr Alfred Maravilla, General Councillor for the Missions, was on an exploratory visit to Kazakhstan from 24 to 28 May 2024, at the invitation of Fr Peter Sakmár, Apostolic Administrator of Atyrau. "I accepted the invitation because it is the task of the General Councillor for the Missions to explore new possible frontiers for the Congregation" he explained. The General Councillor arrived on the solemnity of Mary Help of Christians. During the Eucharist in the main church of the Apostolic Administration in Atyrau, he entrusted this visit to "She who did everything".

As early as the 4th century, Christianity was present in this part of Central Asia, the world's largest landlocked country, known today as "Kazakhstan." Franciscan William of Rubruck traveled to Kazakhstan in 1254 and met Möngke Khan and Sartaq Khan, great-grandson of Genghis Khan. A few years later Pope Nicholas III established the Diocese of Kipchak, in the Kipchak steppe. The Kipchak people practised Tengrism, but some of them converted to Christianity.

Paradoxically, it was Joseph Stalin, as leader of the Soviet Union, who caused a great increase in the Catholic population of Kazakhstan, through the deportation of Catholics of Polish, German and Lithuanian ethnicity and their clergy to the country's concentration camps. Some of these priests helped to found the Church, within which the most widely used language is Russian.

In 1960 there were two officially registered Catholic churches. After the fall of communism in 1991, Pope John Paul II established an Apostolic Administration for all of Central Asia. But, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many German Catholics returned to Germany, decreasing the Catholic population. In 1997 the other Central Asian countries became separate apostolic administrations. In 1999 Pope John Paul II divided Kazakhstan into a diocese and three apostolic administrations. In 2003 Pope John Paul II elevated the diocese of Astana, the capital, to an archdiocese, and Almaty and Karaganda to a diocese. In 2020, 104 priests and 133 nuns served 81 parishes across the country.

Kazakhstan is a secular state whose Constitution guarantees religious freedom. "Discrimination on religious grounds" is prohibited and everyone is guaranteed the "right to determine and indicate or not their ethnic, party and religious affiliation". The recent census indicates that the total population is 20,075,271 people. 69.3% are Muslim and 17.2% are Christian. The free practice of religious belief and the establishment of full freedom of worship have led to an increase in religious activity. Since 1990, hundreds of mosques, churches and other religious structures have been built within a few years. There are conversions between “cultural Muslims” and “cultural Christians”, since conversion is a guaranteed constitutional right.

The Apostolic Administration of Atyrau is a sui iuris pastoral zone covering the western part of Kazakhstan, bordering Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It has 7 parishes spread over an area of 736,612 square kilometres (more than 2 times Italy). Most of the country's oil fields are located in this western part. Catholics represent 0.1% (2,650) of the population of Western Kazakhstan. In many young people today there is a desire for transcendence and a search for something that cannot be identified. Therefore, the current situation is an excellent ground for the first proclamation of the Gospel and for pastoral care to strengthen the faith of the few Catholics.

Unlike other dioceses, the Church of Atyrau is really in its infancy. The 7 parishes of the Apostolic Administration are small and far from each other. Some are only in houses without a real cult building. The challenge now is to reach the Kazakh-speaking ones. In fact, some of these parishes are located in places where 70% are ethnic Kazakh. Diocesan priests from Poland, Slovakia and the Philippines work in the Apostolic Administration. There is only one group of nuns working in Atyrau.

The Apostolic Administrator explained that he sought unsuccessfully the help of the male and female religious Congregations in the promising but demanding work of first proclamation. He took Fr Maravilla to visit some parishes and to meet some parishioners and young people. "I saw the need to reach young people, many of whom are looking for something they can't name," explained the General Councillor.

During their talks, he explained to the Apostolic Administrator the criteria of the Congregation for accepting the opening of a new presence in a country and the preferred beneficiaries of the Salesians of Don Bosco: young people, especially those who are poor, marginalised and at risk. “I just came for an exploratory visit. It is up to the Apostolic Administrator to take the next step" he said. Fr Peter Sakmár assured that these criteria and the conditions presented by the General Councillor for the Missions will be discussed in their Presbyteral Council.

"The rest we leave to the Holy Spirit who blows where he wants" Fr Maravilla concluded.


ANS - “Agenzia iNfo Salesiana” is a on-line almost daily publication, the communication agency of the Salesian Congregation enrolled in the Press Register of the Tibunal of Rome as n 153/2007.

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