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Unorthodox Moves in Kazakstan

Orthodox church angered by Vatican move to upgrade its presence in Kazakstan.

Russian church leaders' denunciation of a Vatican decision to raise its profile in Kazakstan has highlighted their worries about the Orthodox church's future in the region.

Orthodox leaders exploded after it was announced that Kazakstan was to get its first Catholic archdiocese. The decision was made public when Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's State Secretary, met President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Astana on May 18.

"The Vatican has not shifted from its policy of expanding across the entire territory of the former Soviet Union," the Moscow patriarch who heads the Orthodox church, said on May 21. In a statement he warned that this was a "serious blow to the entire system of Orthodox-Catholic relations".

Orthodox church leaders in Kazakstan called the Vatican's move "a rejection of dialogue and co-operation".

Kazakstan is of particular importance to the Orthodox church. While Kazaks are traditionally Muslim, the country is home to nearly five million ethnic Russians - an established community, and the biggest outside Russia. They make up a third of Kazakstan's population, and vastly outnumber the 360,000 Catholics. Ethnic Poles form the nucleus of the Catholic community.

Relationships between the Vatican and Almaty were given a boost in 2001 when the Pope came to Kazakstan - the only Central Asian country he visited. The new archdiocese will bring together Catholic clergy in Almaty, Atyrau and Karagandy who previously reported directly to Rome. The archbishop's seat will be in the capital Astana. According to the Vatican's embassy in Kazakstan, these changes will improve coordination of the church's work.

The Kazak president's backing for the Catholic church raised eyebrows among Orthodox clergy. Sergei Kazimirov, acting secretary of Almaty's Orthodox diocese, was unequivocal about what the decision means. "The creation of Catholic dioceses in Kazakstan is a violation of the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox church," he told IWPR.

Local analysts say that the controversy has arisen out of Kazakstan's desire to build bridges with the West, as well as from rivalry between the two churches.

Sanat Kushkumbaev, deputy director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, told IWPR that Kazakstan could benefit economically by improving ties with Catholic countries like Poland, Italy, Spain and France - all of which are potential investors.

But he warned that the state must balance the interests of diplomacy against being seen to favour any one religious or ethnic group. In a country with over 100 different ethnic groups and numerous sects and religions, "the state should be a neutral arbiter".

"There must be a balance between religions to ensure that they coexistence peacefully in the same territory," he said.

Andrei Ignatiev, an analyst with the Russian weekly newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said, "The creation of a centralised archdiocese shows that the Catholic church is becoming more organised and can make its presence felt, despite the very small number of Catholics in Russia and Kazakstan. That is probably what the Orthodox church is scared of."

Russian churchmen are worried that feel there could be a raft of conversions, says Maria Gorokhova, a religious scholar and co-ordinator of the human rights organisation Mirotvorchestvo (Peace-Making).

"They fear that Catholicism might attract some current Orthodox believers, and that it will also take away the younger generation," she said.

The new archbishop, Tomasz Peta - previously bishop of Astana - told IWPR that he had not read the Russian patriarch's statement, but that he hopes that "relations between Orthodox, Catholics and other religions will be brotherly in the future".

"We will pray that these relations are set right as soon as possible," he added.

Gaukhar Beketova is an independent journalist in Almaty.