History of Catholic Church in Kazakhstan

Author: LOR


L’Osservatore Romano

The Catholic Church has deep roots in Kazakhstan. Historians at Tashkent University say that as early as the second century AD in the town of Merv, today known as Mary, (on the Uzbekistan border in southern Kazakhstan) there were Christians among Roman soldiers taken prisoners after a battle they lost against the Persians. A bishop's see existed there in the year 334, In the same place, at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries, there was a Melkite monastery.

In the south there were also Nestorian communities. Until the 13th century, under the rule of a Nestorian Patriarch, there were 25 metropolitan sees and about 150 bishops. One of these metropolitan sees was at Marcanda (Samarkand), the ancient capital of Sogdiana, a famous historical-cultural region of Central Asia. In the second half of the seventh century, Metropolitan Ilia of Merv probably took part in the conversion of the Turks. The conversion of the Kagan of the Turks is attributed to this Bishop.

In the seventh and eighth centuries, Nestorian Christianity spread through southern Kazakhstan and Semiretchinsk (Turkmenistan) and later in the ninth and 10th centuries led to the founding of the Metropolitan See of Karluki. Christian churches still exist in Taraz and Mirke. In Taraz today there are still Christian families of Syrian origin (easily recognized by their dark skin) who claim that their ancestors went there to escape persecutions, the memory of which has been lost in time. In the eighth century the Uighur peoples were converted.

In the year 1009, Nestorian missionaries baptized one of the numerous groups of Mongol speaking ethnic Kereiti whose Khan took the Christian name Mark, Marguz. In the same period the Nestorian tendency spread among other peoples of Central Asia, and the Metropolitan Sees of Kachgar (Xinjiang, China) and Navakheta were established.

Nestorian Christianity was popular at court. In the family of the Mongol emperors, many noble women at court were Christians and important Uighur and Kereiti ministers were often Nestorians. In the seventh century, Nestorian monks went as far as Changan (today Xian) to the court of the Chinese Emperor Tang.

During the reign of the Grand Khan Kubilai (1260-1295), the Venetian merchants, Mafeo and Marco Polo, discovered more than 700,000 Chinese families who called themselves Christians and they were probably one of the surviving branches of Nestorian Christians or Manichaean Christians (of Persian origin, found until the 17th century in the Fujian province of China).

Franciscan missions in the 13th and 14th century

The appearance of mendicant monastic Orders marks the beginning of Catholic missions to the Far East. One example of missionary activity was the journey undertaken by Flemish Franciscan William of Rubroeck (1253-1255), who travelled 9,940 miles in two years, from Constantinople to Karakorum, capital of the steppe land empire. Most of the territory covered by Rubroeck was in present day Kazakhstan.

At the end of his journey, Rubroeck met the Great Khan Munke (who later became a Christian). The Franciscan sought to illuminate Khan Sartac, the son of Batu-Khan, grandchild of Genghis Khan. Towards the middle of 1254, Khan Sartac converted to Christianity and Pope Innocent IV was informed.

The first Dioceses in Kazakhstan

In the year 1278 the Holy See attempted to organize ecclesiastical structures in the territory of Kazakhstan and in Central Asia. Because of the countless conversions made by the Franciscans, Pope Nicholas III established the Diocese of Kipciak. Franciscans in the territory of Kipciak received special privileges, probably from Khan Monke-Timur (1267-1280), which were renewed by later Khans: for example all Latin clergy were exempt from military service, corve (unpaid labour) and tax. This all corresponded to the general legislation promulgated earlier by Genghis Khan. The Khan were obliged to protect Catholic churches and bell towers. The legislation mentioned above established a stable and ordered situation for missionaries throughout the empire.

Giovanni da Montecorvino, the Apostle of Central Asia

One of the greatest missionary-diplomats of the 13th and 14th centuries was the Italian, Giovanni da Montecorvino (1247-1328 or 1333).Sent to Asia by Pope Nicholas IV in 1289 like other Franciscans including Arnold of Cologne and Odorico of Pordenone, Friar Giovanni reached Kamablik in 1294, where he soon won the esteem of the Khan who ruled the region of Tenduk (part of Mongolia and what is today Manchuria, north of Beijing). The Khan had already been baptized by the Nestorians with the Christian name of George, Kirghiz in Turkic. The name of this Khan was later given to ethnic groups known as the Kirghiz, literally people of St George. Under the influence of Montecorvino, Khan Kirghiz became a member of the Catholic Church and even received Minor Orders from the Franciscan. It is said that the Khan himself served Giovanni at the altar during Mass.

Bishops, Missionaries and Martyrs

In a letter to Nicholas IV in 1306, Montecorvino asked the Pope for more missionaries. But a group of Dominicans only reached as far as Kiptchak. In 1307 Pope Clement V appointed Montecorvino as Archbishop in the city of Kambalik and Patriarch of the

Far East. He then called seven Franciscans for mission in China. They were ordained bishops and were instructed to ordain Montecorvino Archbishop of Kambalik on their arrival. Six of them set out on the journey but three soon died shortly after. One of the remaining three, Gerard Albuini, stopped at Zayton or Kaitong a port on the Fu-jian river, today Quangzhou, to tend to the many Catholics there. The other two, one of whom was Bishop Andrea of Perugia, continued the journey. In 1311 they reached Peking and at last Archbishop Giovanni Montecorvino received Episcopal ordination. It was Pope John XXII who created the Archdiocese of Kambalik (Beijing) in 1318. The missionary activity of Montecorvino, he had the Bible translated into Mongolian, led to hundreds of thousands of conversions. Dioceses were established at Almalik and Urghenc. Altogether, 31 missionary dioceses were set up in the Far East. After the deaths of Giovanni da Montecorvino and the Khan the situation became complicated. Using religion to forge political alliances, the Khan converted to Islam and persecution of the Christians began. Among those killed at Almalik were Richard of Bourgogne, six monks(three priests and three brothers) and an Italian merchant, Guglielmo da Modena. For the next 600 years, Kazakhstan was without a Catholic bishop until 1991, when by Pope John Paul II appointed Jan Pavel Lenga Apostolic Administrator of Karaganda, Kazakhstan.

The Church today

Paradoxically it can be said that the history of the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan resumed in the 20th century when Stalin ordered the deportation to Central Asia of whole peoples of the Catholic tradition. Providence turned a diabolical plan into a missionary event beyond the boldest dreams of even Propaganda Fide or any missionary strategist.

From 1930 onwards, many priests were deported and sent to concentration camps in Kazakhstan. Having been released, they settled among the people and began clandestine ministry. They include:

1) Fr Tadeusz Fedorowicz, spiritual director of the young Karol Wojtyla. Fr Tadeusz was a young priest in the Archdiocese of Lviv, in what is today Ukraine, considered by the Poles a cradle of their culture. On learning that a group of parishioners were being deported to Central Asia, he obtained permission from the Archbishop to share their plight, setting out as one of them and then inventing a new sort of pastoral activity for deportees.

2) Fr Wladislaw Bukowinski. When, after spending several years in prison, he was told he could return to Poland, he chose to remain and with the help of young Sr Gertrude from Karaganda, he put himself at the service of the Catholic community, even secretly founding a congregation of nuns. Today these sisters are numerous and they work in various parts of the former Soviet Union territories.

3) Bishop Alexander Chira, of Oriental Rite, ordained clandestinely in a concentration camp (1956). He too, after being released, asked to remain in Karaganda to work with Fr Bukowinski. He started as an ambulance driver; later, after the death of Stalin and when the situation improved, he began to work as assistant to the parish priest, who was quite unaware that he now had a bishop in his service.

Only in 1980, when the Church of St Joseph in Karaganda was consecrated, built after endless disputes between the Soviet authorities and the people, and not only Catholics, did Bishop Chira reveal his identity. It is moving to think of this bishop humbly teaching the faith to hundreds of young people, many future priests (including Bishop Joseph Werth, Titular of Bulna and Apostolic Administrator of West Siberia of the Latins) without revealing his authority even to his parish priest.

In 1991, after the perestroika, Pope John Paul II appointed Fr Pavel Lenga as Apostolic Administrator of Karaganda for Catholics of Latin Rite in Kazakhstan, and the other four former Soviet territory Republics of Central Asia, Uzbekistan, Talikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. He was ordained at Krasnoarmiejsk but the Episcopal See is Karaganda, the main centre of Catholicism in Kazakhstan. In 1999 Astana received an Apostolic Administration as did Almaty and Atyran. There are 250 parishes; 20 churches have been built so far, there are 63priests, 74 religious sisters and in 1998 a major seminary was opened under the title Mary, Mother of the Church.

On 25 June 1995, Bishop Lenga consecrated Kazakhstan to Mary Queen of Peace at the shrine dedicated to Our Lady under this title at Oziornoje, northern Kazakhstan.This is the only Marian shrine in this part of the world. It was built as an act of thanksgiving by deported Poles who in 1941 were literally dying of hunger. A nearby lake was miraculously filled with fish and the people survived.

In 1994 diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Kazakhstan were established. Archbishop Marian Oles is Apostolic Nuncio to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Besides Catholics of Latin Rite, Kazakhstan also has Catholics of Oriental Rite. Two Greek-Catholic priests work respectively at Karaganda and Pavlodar, under the jurisdiction of the local ordinary. There are eight million Muslims, 6,186,900 Orthodox and around 360,000 Latin Rite Catholics.

One of challenges here is to deepen the people's knowledge of the faith. Years of Soviet rule weakened family faith life and Christian education of the children. Many adults today have no proper understanding of the value of the Sacraments. For example, for many people, including Catholics, church-weddings do not exist. The wedding ceremony is still Soviet style: a wreath laid at the memorial for war dead and the couple are married.

Inhabitants:            Life expectancy:     Language:                  Religion:
Kazakhstan: 19 mil.   Men: 57 years           Official: Kazakh          52% Orthodox
46% Kazakh             Women: 68 years      Commercial: Russian   46% Muslim
35% Russian                                              Others: German            2% Catholic
6% German                                                            Ukrainian
5% Ukrainian

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 September 2001, page 10

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