Pope Francis visits Kazakhstan, will not meet with Russia’s patriarch

Pope Francis has arrived in Kazakhstan for a three-day visit that will include an interfaith conference — a trip overshadowed by the fact that he will not be meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, while there.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the leader of the Catholic Church will participate in the conference, where he will meet worshippers of various faiths from 50 countries.

However, Patriarch Kirill — a vocal supporter of the war in Ukraine — cancelled his visit last month after Pope Francis stated he would not have a tete-a-tete with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church on the conference sidelines.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of its western neighbour in late February, Francis has repeatedly emphasised his anti-war stance, and Moscow’s aggression is likely to be a major talking point during the event.

Unlike the pope, Patriarch Kirill represents only one branch of the highly-decentralised Orthodox Church, which is in theory led by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, seated in Istanbul.

The Ecumenical Patriarch — considered to be “first among equals” — and the Russian Orthodox Church have long debated whether the former holds the ultimate decision-making authority over the rest of the Orthodox churches or if its power is exclusively limited to its own patriarchate.

Francis will also be in Kazakhstan at the same time as Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has embarked on his first trip outside of his country since the COVID-19 pandemic began. But there are no current plans for the two to meet, according to the pope. “I am always willing to travel to China,” Francis said, however.

Beijing and the Vatican have not had diplomatic for more than half a century, but in 2018, the two agreed on a controversial deal regarding the appointment of bishops. The exact details of the accord, which has to be renewed every two years, are secret.

The Pope will visit Kazakhstan’s small Catholic community during his trip.