NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a speech delivered Tuesday in Kazakhstan, Pope Francis applauded the government of the central-Asian nation for abolishing the death penalty.
The pontiff sparked controversy when, on his own initiative, he attempted to reverse the age-old position of the Catholic Church and Sacred Scripture on the death penalty, declaring it "inadmissible" in 2018.
"I wish to express appreciation for the affirmation of the value of human life embodied by the abolition of the death penalty in the name of each human being's right to hope," Francis said in his address to the nation's authorities in Nur-Sultan.
"Together with this, it is important to guarantee freedom of thought, conscience and speech, in order to enable each individual to play his or her unique and equal role in service to society as a whole," the pontiff added.
Kazakhstan's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, signed a bill in December 2021 that completely abolished the death penalty in the former Soviet republic.
Human rights campaigners, however, are condemning the Soviet-type authoritarian regime for cracking down on freedom of expression and freedom of religion, as well as for its close collaboration and ideological ties with other repressive regimes like communist China.
The 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom, published by the U.S. embassy and consulate in Kazakhstan, noted that "authorities continued to arrest, detain and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation."
In a scathing indictment of the country's religious repression, the report elaborated:
[Authorities] prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith, restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities, restrict public manifestation of religious belief … criminalize speech 'inciting religious discord,' restrict proselytism, restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature and censor religious content.
The government also restricted acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes ... [and] continued to raid religious services, prosecute individuals for 'illegal missionary activity,' and refuse to register certain religious groups. Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property.
Christians constitute 26% of the population identifying as religious, the great majority of whom are Russian Orthodox. Other denominations include Roman and Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentecostals and Baptists.
A draconian law passed in 2011 has greatly increased restrictions on religious freedom. The law permits religious organizations to register with the Ministry of Justice at the national, regional, or local level only if they have 5,000, 500 or 50 adult members, respectively.
"The old apparatus of state registration of churches and censorship has been reintroduced, and any Christians outside the Russian Orthodox Church are seen as a threat to the status quo," international persecution consultant Dr. Martin Parsons told Church Militant.
Parsons, a former aid worker in Afghanistan, elaborated on how evangelical churches were growing with converts from local Kazakhs:
Although Kazakhstan has historically had a large Russian Orthodox Church, the last two generations have seen the emergence of evangelical churches, including Christians who have converted from the Kazakh Muslim majority. These churches have now grown quite significantly.
Cults like the Jehovah's Witnesses "are among the groups who have seen the biggest increase, managing to baptize almost 1,000 people a year," reports Sébastien Peyrouse, professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.
"The best-established movement is Novaya Zhizn (a charismatic church), which has shown real missionary dynamism, has created subsidiary communities that exclusively consist of Kazakhs and Uighurs and even has a society in charge of evangelizing the Jews," he notes.
The evangelical missionaries do not "accept any compromise" with the repressive Kazakh laws, as "they consider 'mission' as consubstantial with their existence and with the very principle of Christianity," Dr. Peyrouse explains.
"As these groups fail to recognize any legitimacy to Islam, they reason that the Muslim population must be converted to Christianity," the researcher emphasizes.
Church Militant asked Athanasius Schneider, bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, if Catholics were actively evangelizing the local Kazakhs and if the Catholic population had grown or declined.
Schneider, an outspoken traditionalist, has criticized Pope Francis' "objectively erroneous phrase" in the Abu Dhabi concordat with Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb on the diversity of religions as willed by God. Schneider did not respond to Church Militant.
However, speaking to the left-wing National Catholic Reporter on Francis' participation in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, Schneider said "the message of Pope Francis will be about peace."
"Now we are able to give an example of how people of so many different religions and nations can live together and respect one another," said Schneider.
In 2019, Schneider told EWTN that Pope Francis' revision of the death penalty "contradicts, obviously, the entire 2,000 [year] teaching of the Church." He stressed that "this is not development but contradiction, evident contradiction."