NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan — As war, violence and extremism in countries around the world threaten the lives of countless men, women and children, religions must rise above differences and be examples of peace and harmony, Pope Francis said.
“It is time to realize that fundamentalism defiles and corrupts every creed; time for open and compassionate hearts,” the pope said Sept. 14 at the plenary session of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.
“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,” he said.
On the second day of his visit to Kazakhstan, the pope addressed 80 religious leaders and hundreds of delegates participating in the interreligious meeting Sept. 14-15 in the Palace of Independence, a blue-glassed trapezoid-shaped building in the heart of the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan.
The congress, which is held every three years, was the initiative of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as a way of promoting dialogue among religions, the congress’ website stated. It also aims to prevent “the use of religious feelings of people for the escalation of conflicts and hostilities.”
Arriving at the meeting, the pope took his place at a huge round table with the other leaders and was immediately greeted by Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt. Smiling, the pope affectionately embraced him.
After the formal session, Pope Francis held private meetings with a dozen of the leaders, including the sheikh, but also with Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, head of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church. The metropolitan took the place of Russian Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who canceled his attendance at the congress.
In his formal talk to the congress, Pope Francis said that “authentic religiosity” is needed to fight fundamentalism and extremism in religion and to show the world that it has no reason to distrust or have “contempt for religion as if it were a destabilizing force in modern society.”
Religion, he said, “is not a problem, but part of the solution for a more harmonious life in society.”
Focusing on the meeting’s theme, which reflected on the role of religious leaders “in the spiritual and social development of mankind in the post-pandemic period,” Pope Francis said the COVID-19 pandemic was among several challenges that “call all of us — and in a special way the religions — to greater unity of purpose.”
Now, he said, religions must not squander “the sense of solidarity” or act as “if nothing happened.”
Instead, the pope said, religious leaders must confront the urgent needs of the world and be “promoters of unity amid the grave challenges that risk dividing our human family even further.”
Making the case for peace
When he arrived in Kazakhstan, a country that borders Russia, Pope Francis said he came as a “pilgrim of peace” at a time when “our world urgently needs peace; it needs to recover harmony.”
“I have come to echo the plea of all those who cry out for peace, which is the essential path to development for our globalized world,” he said.
Arriving at the presidential palace, Pope Francis, who continues to suffer from knee pain, remained seated while Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev stood next to him as an honor guard played the national anthems of Vatican City State and Kazakhstan.
Memories of past hurts renew hope for peaceful future
The painful memories of the persecution of Christians in Kazakhstan serve as a reminder that peace “must be achieved anew each day,” Pope Francis said.
Celebrating Mass on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross Sept. 14 at the Expo grounds in Nur-Sultan, the pope said that, much like the people of Israel experienced serpent bites in the desert, the people of Kazakhstan felt the painful bites from the “fiery serpents of violence, atheistic persecution and all those troubled times when people’s freedom was threatened and their dignity offended.”
“We do well to keep alive the memory of those sufferings and not forget certain grim moments; otherwise, we can consider them water under the bridge and think that now, once and for all, we are on the right road,” he said.
Before concluding the Mass, Pope Francis prayed for “all the war-torn areas of our world,” including Ukraine, which has been under attack by neighboring Russia since the end of February, and in the Caucasus region, where clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan led to the death of 100 soldiers.