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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pope Calls for a 'Gentle Dialogue'

ReutersPope John Paul II meeting children before celebrating Mass and paying tribute to Soviet-era gulag prisoners Monday in Astana.
ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- Pope John Paul II called on priests, monks and nuns in Astana on Monday to rebuild the Catholic Church in Central Asia and warned them against aggressive proselytizing in a land of many faiths.

The pope delivered his homily at a Mass in Polish and German, the languages spoken by most of the clergy serving in the region -- and the languages of Catholics exiled here in the Soviet era.

John Paul recalled the exiles' suffering and the leadership of church martyrs who perished in the Stalin-era prison camps of Kazakhstan. He expressed deep thanks to the clergy working to breathe new life into the church.

"Dear brothers and sisters, remain ever faithful to the Lord of life. Together rebuild his living temple, which is the ecclesiastical community spread throughout this vast Eurasian region," he said.

John Paul appeared tired, and his hands trembled more than usual. He suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

Stressing the twin themes of the trip, his first to Central Asia, the pope called for peaceful coexistence between different faiths and "the gentleness of dialogue." Kazakhstan is divided roughly equally between Christians and Moslems.

To make his point, the pope used the words of a Kazakh scholar, Abai Kunanbai: "Precisely because we worship God fully and have faith in him, we have no right to claim that we must force others to believe in him and worship him."

In addition to Moslems, John Paul's message was presumably aimed at the other dominant religion in Kazakhstan, the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox leaders have vehemently objected to the pope's travels in the region and rejected his desire to visit Russia, accusing the Catholic Church of aggressively recruiting believers from the Orthodox.

In an address to Kazakh cultural and scientific figures on Monday evening, John Paul reached out again to Moslems and called for an end to violence in the name of religion.

"I wish to reaffirm the Catholic Church's respect for Islam, for authentic Islam: the Islam that prays, that is concerned for those in need," he said.

"Recalling the errors of the past, including the most recent past, all believers ought to unite their efforts to ensure that God is never made the hostage of human ambitions. Hatred, fanaticism and terrorism profane the name of God and disfigure the true image of man."

The pope insisted on going ahead with his trip in spite of security concerns following the terrorist attacks, which have prompted a massive U.S. military buildup. At his open-air Mass on Sunday, he asked Christians and Moslems to work together for peace and not to allow the attacks to further divide civilization.