There is a striking comparison to be made between the visit of Pope St John Paul II to Kazakhstan in September 2001 and the more recent visit of Pope Francis in September 2022. The records of the two visits can be found at the website of the Holy See: Pastoral Visit to Kazakhstan (John Paul II) and Apostolic Journey to Kazakhstan (Pope Francis).
In his press conference during the flight home from Kazakhstan, Pope Francis said that he had found the social and cultural development of the country a surprise, that he had know little or nothing of the country before his visit. However, his main address during the visit reflected, as did the addresses of St John Paul II during his visit, a familiarity with Abai Kunanbai, perhaps the Kazakhstan's greatest thinker. And, in slightly different ways, both Pope Francis and St John Paul II focussed on the question of freedom of religion and the relationship between religious believers and the society in which they live.
In his 2001 visit, St John Paul II took part in a meeting with representatives of the world of culture. Speaking only a few years after Kazakhstan had gained its independence from the former Soviet Union, he referred to the range of influences that had given rise to a "vibrant local culture, rich in creative developments".
One of your country’s great thinkers, the teacher Abai Kunanbai, put it this way: "A man cannot be a man unless he perceives the evident and the hidden mysteries of the universe, unless he seeks an explanation for everything. Anyone who fails to do this is no different from the animals. God distinguished man from the animals by giving him a soul... It is absolutely necessary that we constantly extend our interests, increasing the knowledge which nourishes our souls. It is important to realize that the goods of the soul are incomparably superior to the benefits of the body, and that carnal needs should be subordinated to the imperatives of the soul" (Sayings of Abai, Chapter 7)....
St John Paul went on to identify the religious character of such questions, and to give an account of how the Christian believer, whilst convinced that Jesus Christ represents the answer to these questions, bears witness "in full respect for the search which other people of good will are engaged in along different paths":
Questions like this are religious by their very nature, in the sense that they appeal to those supreme values which have God as their ultimate foundation. Religion, for its part, cannot fail to grapple with these existential questions; otherwise it loses contact with life.
Christians know that in Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, a complete answer has been given to the questions dwelling deep in the human heart. Jesus’ words, his actions and, in the end, his Paschal Mystery, have revealed him to be the Redeemer of man and the Saviour of the world. Of this "good news", which for two thousand years has been on the lips of countless men and women in every part of the earth, the Pope of Rome comes before you today as a humble and convinced witness, in full respect for the search which other people of good will are engaged in along different paths. Whoever has encountered the truth in all the splendour of its beauty must necessarily feel drawn to share it with others. Rather than an obligation based on a law, the believer feels the need to share with others the supreme Value of his own life.
St John Paul II goes on to draw the conclusion for the right to religious freedom in the secular state:
Consequently – even in the context of a soundly secular State, which is obliged in any event to guarantee to each citizen, without distinction of sex, race and nationality, the fundamental right to freedom of conscience – there is a need to acknowledge and defend the right of believers to bear public witness to their faith. Authentic religious practice cannot be reduced to the private sphere or narrowly restricted to the edges of society. The beauty of the new houses of worship which are beginning to rise up almost everywhere in the new Kazakhstan is a precious sign of spiritual rebirth and a sign of promise for the future.
The centre piece of Pope Francis' visit in 2022 was his speech at the opening of the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. In a passage that has echoes of St John Paul II's earlier visit, Pope Francis urged that "Religion is not a problem, but part of the solution for a more harmonious life in society":
Abai challenges us by asking a timeless question: “What is the beauty of life, if one does not go deep?” (Poems, 1898). Another poet, pondering the meaning of life, placed on the lips of a shepherd in these vast lands of Asia an equally essential question: “Where will this, my brief wandering, lead?” (G. LEOPARDI, Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia). Questions like these point to humanity’s need for religion; they remind us that we human beings do not exist so much to satisfy earthly interests or to weave purely economic relationships, as to walk together, as wayfarers, with our eyes raised to the heavens. We need to make sense of the ultimate questions, to cultivate a spirituality; we need, as Abai says, to keep “the soul alive and the mind clear” (Book of Words, Word 6).
Dear brothers and sisters, the world expects us to be examples of souls alive and minds clear; it looks to us for an authentic religiosity. It is time to realize that the fundamentalism defiles and corrupts every creed; time for open and compassionate hearts. It is also time to consign to the history books the kind of talk that for all too long, here and elsewhere, has led to distrust and contempt for religion, as if it were a destabilizing force in modern society. These lands are all too familiar with the legacy of decades of state-imposed atheism: that oppressive and stifling mentality for which the mere mention of the word “religion” was greeted with embarrassed silence. Religion is not a problem, but part of the solution for a more harmonious life in society. The pursuit of transcendence and the sacred value of fraternity can inspire and illumine the decisions that need to be made amid the geopolitical, social, economic, ecological, but fundamentally spiritual crises that many modern institutions, including democracies, are presently experiencing, to the detriment of security and concord among peoples. We need religion, in order to respond to the thirst for world peace and the thirst for the infinite that dwells in the heart of each man and woman.
And like St John Paul II before him, Pope Francis goes on to insist on the necessity of religious freedom, though now with a reference to inter-religious dialogue: "Each person has the right to render public testimony to his or her own creed, proposing it without ever imposing it".
For this reason, an essential condition for genuinely human and integral development is religious freedom. Brothers and sisters, we are free. Our Creator “stepped aside for us”; in a manner of speaking, he “limited” his absolute freedom in order to enable us, his creatures, to be free. How can we then presume to coerce our brothers and sisters in his name? “As believers and worshipers”, Abai once again tells us, “we must not claim that we can force others to believe and worship” (Word 45). Religious freedom is a basic, primary and inalienable right needing to be promoted everywhere, one that may not be restricted merely to freedom of worship. Each person has the right to render public testimony to his or her own creed, proposing it without ever imposing it. This is the correct method of preaching, as opposed to proselytism and indoctrination, from which all are called to step back. To relegate to the private sphere our most important beliefs in life would be to deprive society of an immense treasure. On the other hand, to work for a society marked by the 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.
A post at the blog Where Peter is draws attention to four challenges to religions that Pope Francis describes in his address: Pope Francis' message to world religious leaders. H/T to this post for drawing my attention to Pope Francis' visit to Kazakhstan.
From two different angles, one from the point of view of culture and society and the other from the point of view of dialogue between religions and society, St John Paul II and Pope Francis arrive at the same understanding of the importance of religious freedom for the life of (secular) societies.
It is also worth noting the high regard given by both St John Paul II and Pope Francis to the present day situation of Kazakhstan and to its rich cultural history, in part a result of a geographical location which has prompted a particular experience of encounter with different influences at different times.