Kazakh bishops official says Catholics ‘shocked’ by January riots

WARSAW, Poland – A Kazakh church leader says Catholics were “shocked and bewildered” when riots in early January shattered Kazakhstan’s image as an oasis of peace and stability.

“I have never experienced such ill will and aggression here – after so many years of excellent cooperation between confessions, and between the Catholic Church and the government,” said Fr. Peter Pytlovani, general secretary. of the episcopal conference, based in the capital, Nur-Sultan, formerly Astana.

“That’s why everyone is so shocked. As we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, everything we had gained in peace and dialogue was suddenly overthrown and ruined. It reminds us that we we must not only celebrate our wealth in unity and mutual understanding, but also redouble our efforts to protect it,” Pytlovani told Catholic News Service on January 14.

The violence that erupted on January 2 was the worst since Kazakhstan’s secession from the Soviet Union in 1991. During the riots, at least 160 people were killed and more than 700 injured, mostly in Almaty, the largest city from Kazakhstan. The riots were sparked by rising fuel prices.

Pytlovani told CNS while conditions were near normal in the capital, tighter police and military restrictions were being applied in Almaty, where many buildings had been looted and burned.

“We were not aware of any attacks on places of worship, whether Catholic or of other faiths, and our own churches are open again for personal prayer, subject to coronavirus measures “, said Pytlovani.

“We are still looking for information on injuries to church members. But no religious community seems to have suffered significant damage, either materially or personally.

Kazakhstan’s interior ministry confirmed on January 10 that around 8,000 people had been arrested, mostly in the south and west, and warned that lethal force would be used to prevent any return to disorder.

On the same day, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called the unrest a coup attempt and said a ban on gatherings would also remain in place for at least 10 days.

In a Jan. 9 Angelus message, Pope Francis expressed his “deep concern” over the violence and entrusted Kazakhstan to Mary’s intercession. He said he hoped social harmony would be “restored as soon as possible through the pursuit of dialogue, justice and the common good.”

Meanwhile, Kazakh bishops said Catholics would remain “united in prayer” with Pope Francis, “for the rest of the souls of those killed,” adding in a January 10 statement on the website that the priests were called to “continue to pray for an early death”. resolution of the current situation and the restoration of peace and prosperity”.

Pytlovani said amid speculation, church leaders were awaiting clarification on who was behind the unrest and whether outside forces were involved.

“There is a very wealthy group of people in Kazakhstan, but also a very large segment that lives in the simplest possible conditions at the social minimum,” the Bishops’ General Secretary told CNS.

“After all the hardships endured, ordinary people seem to have had high expectations that the state was now moving in a better direction and that the current president would take steps to improve their lot. Society still seems willing to trust its government, provided such measures continue.

The Catholic Church represents only 1% of the 17 million inhabitants of predominantly Muslim Kazakhstan.

Pytlovani said Kazakhstan had faced problems with hooliganism but had generally benefited from “safe streets”, adding that Catholics had maintained an “excellent dialogue” with Muslim and Orthodox groups in the country.

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