Pope Francis, warned by doctors not to travel to Ukraine in the immediate future, will bear a message of peace instead to a tense Central Asia with a three-day trip to Kazakhstan.
The Argentine pope, who is forced by knee pain to use a wheelchair and has admitted he must slow down or consider retirement, will take part in an inter-religious summit in the capital, Nur-Sultan.
The 85-year-old said on Sunday, September 11, that the 38th trip abroad since his election in 2013 would be “an opportunity… to (have a) dialogue as brothers, animated by the common desire for peace, peace that our world is thirsty for.”
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, was initially expected but has pulled out of the September 14-15 event, dashing hopes of a meeting with Pope Francis over the Ukraine conflict.
While the pope has called for peace and denounced a “cruel and senseless war,” Kirill has defended Putin’s “military operation” and the fight against Russia’s “external and internal enemies.”
About 100 delegations from 50 countries are expected to take part in the event in Kazakhstan, which is just south of Russia and gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Dialogue, a coming together, the search for peace between different religious and cultural worlds are at the heart of this trip,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said on Monday, September 12.
The pope is expected to land Tuesday shortly before 6:00 pm (1200 GMT) in Nur-Sultan, where he will go to the presidential palace and deliver a first speech to the authorities and the diplomatic corps.
Before that, he will be received by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
The 69-year-old leader is an ally of Russia, though there have been tensions between the two countries since Moscow launched the invasion in February.
Tokayev has refused to support the war and the presence of a large Russian community in the north of Kazakhstan has sparked fears of a revival of Moscow’s imperial ambitions in the area.
Kazakhstan borders other former Soviet republics, as well as China and the Caspian Sea.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis will address the opening of the plenary session of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, before celebrating a mass in the afternoon and winding up his trip on Thursday, September 15, by meeting Catholic leaders.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in the country at the same time as Pope Francis, but there is no meeting expected, despite the Vatican hoping to renew a historic accord appointing bishops in China.
Energy-rich Kazakhstan has 19 million inhabitants, 70 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims, while 26 percent are Christians — mainly Russian Orthodox. Less than one percent are Catholic.
Tokayev began a series of reforms after his election in 2019, but the country was rocked by protests over fuel prices earlier this year that left more than 200 people dead and shattered its image of stability.
Francis is the second pope to visit Kazakhstan after John Paul II’s trip in September 2001.
He said last week that doctors had forbidden him from traveling to Ukraine or Moscow for now, as he recovers from a knee problem that has forced him to cancel numerous events at the Vatican.