The thermometer shows -35 °. The snow on the ground is only the continuation of the white and seamless sky, enveloping the Kazakh steppe in the winter.
this background, the Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption, with its red brick,
stands out even more.
little farther on, the largest mosque in Central Asia, a Russian Orthodox
church, the Protestant, Buddhist, but also the Pyramid of Peace, by star
architect Norman Foster, symbolizes the union of all religions.
capital of Kazakhstan, fully embodies the ideal of pax religiosa wanted by President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the
base of his policy, to guarantee social stability in a country, home to more
than 120 nationalities and 40 different denominational groups.
are only 2% out of 16 million people, a mostly Muslim majority.
little flock, of which it is difficult even to map the exact number of the
faithful, but that Christmas makes stronger and more united," as AsiaNews is
told by Father Roland Jaquenoud, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Mary Most
Holy in Astana. The
diocese is "young", elevated to an apostolic administration in 2003
by Pope John Paul II, whose visit is commemorated by a statue, placed in the
garden of the cathedral.
Swiss-born, Fr. Roland has been in Astana for three
addition to the cathedral - says the priest - there's another Catholic Church,
Mary the Mother of all nations".
is located in a poor neighborhood and was the first church in the city, which
was granted in 1979 by the Soviet regime to the local community, when the
Astana with skyscrapers and shopping malls of today were not even in the plans
of Nazarbayev. In
fact it was Nazarbayev who, at the end of 90s, wanting to move the capital from
Almaty, transforming the old Akmola ("white cemetery" in Kazakh) into
what is now the administrative center of the new independent nation of Kazakhstan.
the fact that there was a church at the time of the USSR did not automatically mean
that there were also priests. "And
so, after decades of faith lived in silence and in secret, the Catholics of
Astana are now used to a modest and simple Christmas" says Fr. Roland.
For the Vigil, the Cathedral of
the Assumption (curia and parish at the same time) was full of people, even if
the next day, December 25, was a normal working day here. But the church is not full all
year round. "Catholics
actually practicing in the city, are about 500, but Easter and Christmas
celebrations also attract many Orthodox and Muslims, interested to see how it
here believe that Catholicism is a cult - the clergyman adds - All people know
about the Pope John Paul II in particular. For most of the population Christmas
is the Orthodox one that falls on Jan. 7, according to the Julian calendar."
Driven, however, by a real
research and not just from sheer curiosity, there are many who come to the
cathedral to pray or simply to confide in someone. Father
Roland tells of "a Kazakh couple who every Sunday at 8 come to light a
candle, read the Bible and then leave in silence".
however, have begun a real journey of faith. "Conversion
from Islam is permitted and there are several, but they are mostly
non-practicing Muslims, - he underlines - There are always difficulties related
to the family, which, however, often accepts and supports the choice."
"moving" case was recently, one of three women: a mother, her
daughter and her grandmother, whose husband was an imam, who was imprisoned
during the Soviet period because of his faith. "When
the young woman confessed she was no longer at ease with Islam, her mother and
grandmother did not condemn her, but they only told her not to leave God and to
find the right faith for her - recalls Fr. Roland - It
actually was her grandmother who gave her the first Gospel and after a long
journey, she decided to be baptized".
The initial great tolerance of
the Kazakh authorities has, however, been gradually decreasing. For
fear of the proliferation of Islamic fundamentalist sects - as the government officially
explains - a law widely criticized by human rights defenders was launched last
year restricting the entry of foreign preachers in the country, imposing strict
rules for the registration of religious
do not think it will solve the problem of extremism," said the vicar, who
then admits that things are "a little 'complicated" for the Catholic
Church, with long waits for visas and complex paperwork. "But
these things are common to all foreigners and there is nothing against the
Catholic Church in particular," he adds. Indeed. The
Sisters of Mother Teresa, for example, are obviously loved by all. "In
all, Astana, there are four of them and they work with the poor and
homeless," says the priest, for whom the missionaries are doing "fundamental"
"If I have a problem in the social sphere, I know that I can call them, because
they know the needs of the community very well." And
one of the biggest problems after alcoholism, is that of abortion and the
family in general.
started with meetings with women who wanted to abandon their children after
birth because maybe they were born from extramarital affairs, and we recently
started a sort of clinic, where there's a lot of women, especially Muslims."