History in the making
Central Asian republic awaits an ordination quite unlike any other
By John Pontifex
CATHOLICS in Kazakhstan are preparing for the ordination of what Church leaders believe is the first priest to come from the country’s native population in modern times.
Up to 80 percent of Catholic priests and most of the faithful in the central Asian republic are foreigners with the rest made up of descendants of immigrants.
As a result, their outreach to the country’s native people is severely hampered but if all goes to plan the situation could change dramatically when on 29th June 25-year-old Ruslan Rakhimberlinov, a teenage convert to Catholicism, is ordained.
In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Ruslan’s bishop, Athanasius Schneider of Karaganda, central Kazakhstan explained: “This is a very historic event – the first ever.”
With his Mongolian physical features as is typical among natives in Kazakhstan, Ruslan is expected to make a big impression in a country where often the Catholic Church is often seen as very foreign.
Bishop Schneider, who will preside at the ordination ceremony, said: “I do not expect there will be an immediate reaction but when the people see him, they will I am sure become accustomed to him.”
For Bishop Schneider, the ordination is hugely important: “The Church has yet to be properly implanted and this is only possible with clergy native to Kazakhstan.”
Today’s Catholic community is made up of descendants of people from Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, who were deported to Kazakhstan during the Soviet era. Bishop Schneider said that around Karaganda there was a concentration camp and a series of control centres about the size of France.
Hence the wide gulf in society in Kazakhstan.
The soon-to-be Fr Ruslan can expect to find valuable support from three Sisters in a Carmelite convent in Karaganda diocese, who are also native to Kazakhstan.
The bishop explained that in a mainly Muslim country like Kazakhstan, the Church had to be very careful about charges of forcing, or coercing people to convert to Christianity.
“I hope and I am convinced that the Catholic faith will be more widely present in Kazakhstan but we have to proceed with caution. It is something to work on in the future.”
He stressed the shortage of priests in Kazakhstan saying that his top priority was to promote vocations.
Bishop Schneider explained that as a boy Ruslan and his family lived near a convent and over time he and his family developed an interest in Christianity until they all converted.
There are barely 150,000 Catholics in a country that is 60 percent Muslim and most of the rest without religion.
Bishop Schneider said there was freedom of religious practice and that the Government was determined to “prevent the infiltration” of fundamentalism.
The Church is still recovering from almost 70 years of life ‘underground’ when the country was under Soviet control.
The Church of Kazakhstan was only formally accepted into the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences at the federation’s meeting in Bangkok, on 15-20th April 2008.
Since the collapse of the USSR, many survivors of the labour camps have returned to their homeland and now Kazakhstan is home to many new Christians in a country where people are turning to religion, especially Islam.
Aid to the Church in Need gives key support to seminarians but also helps with church building.
Bishop Schneider said: “I am very grateful to the benefactors from ACN. With their help, we can implant the Church in Kazakhstan – the help each person gives is so valuable in a place which has suffered so much suffering over the years.”
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An Outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 145 countries throughout the world.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, 45 million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide.
For more information please contact the Sydney office of ACN on (02) 9679-1929. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Aid to the Church in Need PO Box 6245 Blacktown DC NSW 2148. Web:www.aidtochurch.org
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