Catholic bishops have appealed for peace in Kazakhstan, after a week of anti-government protests, triggered by fuel price rises, left dozens dead and injured, and thousands under arrest in the central Asian country.
“Catholics of this country, uniting in prayer with Pope Francis, pray for the repose of the souls of those killed during the riots”, the Bishops’ Conference said in a website statement on Monday. “The bishops and ordinaries of Kazakhstan have called on priests to celebrate Mass in their intention, inviting believers to participate, and will continue praying for an early resolution of the current situation and the establishment of peace and prosperity”.
The statement was issued as President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev branded the unrest, centred in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, as an attempted coup, and said on Monday a nationwide curfew and ban on gatherings would remain in place for at least 10 days.
The Pope voiced “deep concern” about the violence and entrusted Kazakhstan to the intercession of the Virgin Mary in a Sunday Angelus message from St Peter's Square, adding that he hoped social harmony would be “restored as soon as possible through the search for dialogue, justice and the common good”.
However, an Italian-born bishop heading the country's Karaganda diocese warned that religious services were currently banned under a state of emergency, disrupting church life.
“The situation has not been as critical in Karaganda as in Almaty - there were peaceful protests here, which were quickly dispersed”, the 73-year-old Bishop Adelio Dell'Oro told the Vatican's Fides news agency. “But we also suffered many inconveniences because of the lack of internet connections, which also prevented bank withdrawals and stopped people from being able to shop”
The Catholic Church makes up just one percent of the 17 million inhabitants of mostly Muslim Kazakhstan, and also has dioceses in the capital Nursultan and Almaty, the last with a dozen parishes, as well as an apostolic administration in Atyrau and another for Greek Catholics.
Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Maria Santissima in Astana, tweeted on Saturday that Catholics in Kazakhstan are safe amid the unprecedented unrest.
Bishop Schneider has gained an international profile through his advocacy of traditional liturgical practices such as Communion on the tongue and was one of three bishops in Kazakhstan who signed a “Profession of the immutable truths about sacramental marriage” in 2017.
“The Catholics in Kazakhstan are thanks to God safe,” he wrote. “In our churches we continue to celebrate the Holy Mass, doing Eucharistic Adoration and praying particularly for peace in our country and for harmony in the social life, which the Kazakh people desire.”
At least 160 were reported dead and more than 700 injured in the unrest, which erupted on 2 January and was the worst since Kazakhstan's 1991 independence from the Soviet Union.
Addressing regional leaders in a video call on Monday, after despatching the first of up to 5000 Russian troops to maintain order, President Vladimir Putin said Kazakhstan had been targeted by “well organised and clearly managed groups of militants”, some trained in “terrorist camps abroad”, adding that Russia would ”never allow revolutions in the region”.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry confirmed that around 8000 people had been detained across the huge country and warned that lethal force would be used to prevent further protests.
Speaking on the 7 January Orthodox Christmas, Russia's Patriarch Kirill said Kazakhstan had hosted “large numbers of new martyrs and church confessors” under communist rule, adding that Russians “could not remain indifferent” to ”bloodshed, clashes and civil unrest”, happening “just around the corner in the territory of historical Rus”.
Meanwhile, the head of the Russian Orthodox church in Kazakhstan Metropolitan Alexander Mogilev supported President Tokayev's “wise and timely decision” to summon help from Russia and other states belonging to the region's Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, and urged "healthy forces in society" to "rally around" the embattled head of state.
Caritas Kazakhstan staff were forced to stay at home for their own safety. Director Fr Guido Trezzani reported that staff were unable to reach their office in Almaty, saying, “we are about a kilometre and a half from government buildings, and we heard gunshots.”