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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Central Asia Readies for Pope Visit

Despite increased tension in Central Asia, Pope John Paul II will go ahead with a trip to Kazakhstan and Armenia later this week, bringing him one step closer to fulfilling his dream of visiting Russia.

But he will not meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, who is scheduled to leave Armenia just two days before the pope arrives.

Kazakhstan will take "unprecedented" security measures for the visit, which begins Saturday, the country's foreign minister said Monday.

"The security measures will be unprecedented in connection with the recent terrorist attacks in the United States," Foreign Minister Bulat Iskakov was quoted by Interfax as saying.

About 2,400 police officers will guard the capital Astana, including 900 officers brought in from other cities, he said.

Astana has a population of 350,000.

Iskakov also said 185 million tenge ($1.25 million) has been allocated from the federal budget for the four-day visit.

On Sept. 25, the pontiff will fly from Kazakhstan to Armenia, where he will participate in celebrations of 1,700 years of Christianity in Armenia -- the first nation that established Christianity as state religion in 301, before the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine.

Kazakhstan and Armenia will be the sixth and seventh former Soviet republics visited by the pope, who has declared improving relations with Eastern churches a priority and has long expressed a desire to visit Russia. Such a visit has met with stern opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church, which views the papal trips as a part of the Vatican's ages-long expansionist policies.

For the governments of the young post-Soviet states, papal visits are important signs of recognition as democratic countries respecting religious freedom and other Western values. Religious freedom is under Western scrutiny in both Armenia and Kazakhstan.

"For both [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbayev and [Armenian President Robert] Kocharyan, the papal visits are big public relations successes," said Alexander Shchipkov, head of the Guild of Religious Journalists of Russia.

For Kazakhstan, whose small Roman Catholic community is largely made up of ethnic Germans who were deported there during World War II, the papal trip may help slow down or stop the German emigration, he said.

"Germans are leaving the country in droves, and they are mainly skilled labor," Shchipkov said. "Nazarbayev wants to stop them."

Unlike the papal trip to predominantly Orthodox Ukraine earlier this year, which brought about an explosion of anti-Catholic rhetoric in Moscow, this trip is likely to generate a much more mitigated reaction in Russia. Although the Russian Orthodox Church is an established minority religion in Kazakhstan, Kazakhs are traditionally Moslem, and papal trips to places where Orthodox believers are a minority are tacitly welcome because they raise the profile of Christianity at large.

Armenia's predominant Armenian Apostolic Church, which broke away from the undivided church in the fifth century, maintains good relations with both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. In a sign of deft diplomacy, Alexy is scheduled to visit Armenia on Sept. 21-23 and will leave two days before the pope's arrival.

At a briefing Tuesday, the Moscow Patriarchate's top official in charge of external relations, Metropolitan Kirill, half-heartedly protested that the pope did not consult the patriarch about his trip to Kazakhstan, which the Moscow Patriarchate considers to be part of its "canonical territory."

Yet he stressed that, since Orthodoxy is a minority religion in the country, "the pope's visit to this country will not be an event comparable to his recent visit to Ukraine and the sharpness of the Russian Church's reaction will be completely different this time around."

He ruled out the possibility of a meeting between the pope and the patriarch in Armenia.

Armenia has a significant Armenian Catholic minority, which is loyal to Rome but maintains Armenian ritual, and a tiny Roman Catholic community. The head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, is scheduled to attend the papal Mass in Etchmiadzin, the holy seat of Armenian Christianity.