Pope Francis is expected to travel to Kazakhstan next month, setting up a potential meeting with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church regarding the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Francis is scheduled to attend an interfaith conference in the nation’s capital of Nur-Sultan on September 13-15, according to the Vatican on Monday.
“Accepting the invitation of the civil and ecclesial authorities, Pope Francis will make the announced Apostolic Journey to Kazakhstan from 13-15 September this year, visiting the city of Nur-Sultan on the occasion of the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions,” Matteo Bruni, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, said in a statement.
The pope noted his interest in the potential trip in April, though the announcement was only made official on Monday following his return from a week-long journey to Canada.
The former Soviet Union-controlled nation of Kazakhstan is less than 1% Catholic, with the vast majority of residents from a Muslim background, according to the Vatican.
The visit will mark the first visit by a pope to the nation since St. John Paul II visited in 2001 as the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
The trip may also be significant due to the planned attendance of Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has remained faithful to his nation’s President Vladimir Putin despite the invasion of Ukraine starting on February 24.
The two religious leaders have met once before, with both Francis and Kirill visiting Havana, Cuba, in 2016. They have also talked by video call at least once since Russia’s invasion, according to the Associated Press.
Francis has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine, including during a Sunday prayer while on his Canadian journey.
“If you look at reality objectively, considering the damage that war brings every day to those people but also the entire world, the only reasonable thing to do is to stop and negotiate,” he said. “May wisdom inspire concrete steps of peace.”
The meeting might also serve as an alternative to the pope’s ongoing hopes to visit Ukraine in an attempt to help pursue peace. Francis postponed multiple trips internationally earlier in the year due to a knee injury that has left him limited to the use of a wheelchair, walker, or cane.
The injury has led to much speculation regarding Francis retiring, though he spoke out publicly last month to dismiss the rumors. Saturday, however, the pope mentioned the possibility of stepping aside soon during an interview.
“I think that at my age and with this limitation I have to save some energy to be able to serve the Church, or on the contrary, think about the possibility of stepping down,” Francis said.
“I don’t think I can continue doing trips with the same rhythm as before,” he said. “But I will try to continue to travel in order to be close to people because it is a way of serving.”