On January 16, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) Kirill Frolov arrived in Astana for a two-day visit. He attempted to lend a purely religious character to his journey to Kazakhstan, a predominantly Muslim country, and originally planned to visit Almaty. However, thick fog prevented his plane landing at Almaty airport. Whether it was the deliberate intention of Patriarch Kirill, the visit assumed a clearly political connotation and culminated in extensive talks with President Nursultan Nazarbayev who received from the hands of the guest the Glory and Honor Order, the highest mark of distinction in the ROC, previously granted to the former Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former Patriarch Alexey II, and the pro-Moscow Head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus Allahshukur Pashazade.
Addressing an audience in Astana, Patriarch Kirill stressed the existence of “inter-ethnic, religious tolerance, and mutual respect” in Kazakhstan, condemning at the same time “the spread of extremism and terrorism,” while praising the Kazakh leader for his “approach to these problems,” which helped to avoid conflict. The pro-government media in Kazakhstan praised the visit of Patriarch Kirill as “an important event of historic significance,” serving the cause of “consolidating the relationship not only between Orthodox believers, but also our states” (Kazinform, January 18).
In Astana the head of Russian Orthodoxy attended the opening ceremony of the new Uspensk cathedral, the largest Orthodox Church in Central Asia occupying 2,000 square meters and designed to hold 4,000 people. After the sanctification of the cathedral and a religious service Patriarch Kirill thanked the government of Kazakhstan for its assistance in constructing the cathedral and decorated Imangali Tasmaganbetov, the mayor of Astana, Timur Kulibayev, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of “KazMunaiGas” the state-owned national oil and gas giant and Askar Mamin, the head of the national railway company with awards. Nazarbayev said that the opening of the Uspensk cathedral was timed to coincide with the arrival of the patriarch and was intended as “a gift to all Orthodox followers” (Liter, January 19).
The opening of the Uspensk cathedral in Astana symbolizes the efforts of the ROC to retain its influence in Kazakhstan following its independence and the arrival of missionaries from Roman Catholic, Protestant and other churches, primarily in the Russian-populated North of Kazakhstan, which was previously a domain of Russian Orthodoxy. Although numerous western religious sects and trends are mushrooming in Kazakhstan, Astana openly prioritizes the significance of Islam and ROC in its domestic policy, regarding them as an effective tool in preserving domestic peace and stability and as a counterbalance to “destructive” influences of what is officially depicted as the “non-traditional” religious trends from the West.
Patriarch Kirill’s trip to Astana was also synchronized with the creation of the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which was welcomed by Kirill as an important step towards integration. Echoing the words of his guest, Nazarbayev said he would go further and urge his Russian counterpart to work together to create a single economic union. He called on Patriarch Kirill to jointly counteract western cultural values “imposed by international organizations (www.nur.kz, January18).
The patriarch then flew to Almaty in order to visit the Voznesensk cathedral and was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd. Officially, more than 3,000 religious associations representing 40 denominations are registered in Kazakhstan and 30 percent of believers preach Russian Orthodoxy. Almost 70 percent of believers are Muslim. However, these figures are difficult to verify and the exact number of religious sects and associations are unknown even to the ministry of justice, which is responsible for their registration. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the number of Orthodox churches and Mosques are rapidly growing, frequently thanks to lavish financial support from local government. In the case of the Uspensk cathedral, its construction started in 2005, but the work was delayed due to financial problems as donations from church members were insignificant. However, the mayor of Astana rushed to renew the construction work, securing an injection of money from local business (Aikyn, January 18).
The visit of the head of ROC occurred at a time when Russian Orthodoxy faces a deeping crisis in other parts of post-Soviet space, above all in Ukraine and the Baltic States aggravated by divergences between churches. Significantly, the visit came in the wake of Kazakhstan’s ascension to the chairmanship of the OSCE, an event closely watched by Moscow seeking to mend its relations with the West. In his interview with the Kazakh state news agency KazTAG, Kirill praised Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship as a significant event contributing to positive development of inter-cultural relations. Evidently, the ROC is strengthening its ties with Astana in an effort to spread its influence within the region.