The Vatican has named a church in Kazakhstan as the first minor basilica in Central Asia.
The Minor Basilica of St. Joseph in Karaganda was built at the request of persecuted Catholics who had been exiled to the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic by the Soviet Union.
“Our beautiful church was built 40 years ago. At that time, the Catholic people had already been deported to Kazakhstan by the Soviet Union. It was atheism, and the priests stayed in the prison and in the camps,” Fr. Evgeniy Zinkovskiy, vicar general of the Diocese of Karaganda, told CNA.
Karaganda was the site of one the largest systems of collective labor camps in the Soviet Union, the KarLag. It is estimated that a million political prisoners passed through KarLag to toil in its extensive complex of mines over the decades from 1931 to 1959, including thousands of persecuted Polish, Ukrainian, German, Lithuanian and Belorussian Catholics.
“For us this church is the fruit of deep faith and heavy suffering of our people, but also of the great love of the Lord God for our people,” Zinkovskiy said.
As Soviet repression of Christianity eased somewhat in the 1970s, Catholics in Karaganda asked permission from the government to build a church, and in 1977 they received a letter from Moscow authorizing construction.
The church was dedicated in 1980 as the first Catholic Church in the Kazakh SSR. After Kazakhstan obtained its independence in 1991, St. Joseph’s became the cathedral of the Diocese of Karaganda in 1999. In 2012, a new cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima was consecrated on the former site of the KarLag forced labor camp.
St. Joseph’s contains relics of Blessed Władysław Bukowiński, a priest who spent more than 10 years in Soviet gulags proclaiming the Gospel to the other prisoners sentenced to forced labor. Bukowiński’s beatification took place at this church in 2016.
Fr. Vladimir Dzurenda, the current rector of the Minor Basilica of of St. Joseph, told CNA that the cathedral had become a “symbol of the revival of Catholics both in the period of the Soviet Union and in modern Kazakhstan.”
“The parish of St. Joseph was one of the few churches that was allowed to be built in the 70s in Kazakhstan when it was part of the Soviet Union,” he said.
“During communism, people came here, traveled many kilometers to receive the sacraments and spiritual support. In the 80s, the largest community of Catholics in Central Asia was formed here,” Dzurenda explained.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral was dedicated as a minor basilica during a livestreamed Mass Sept. 6 after the Vatican Congregation for Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a decree June 19 conferring the new status on the church.
The title of minor basilica is an honor bestowed by the pope to signify a church of “particular importance for liturgical and pastoral life,” and with a “particular link” to Rome and the pope, according to the norms laid out in the Congregation for Divine Worship’s 1989 document Domus ecclesiae.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Kazakhstan is now the only minor basilica in Central Asia, a region comprising Kazakhstan and four other former Soviet republics -- Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
“The people who built this church could not even dream of it,” Zinkovskiy said. “They were deported to places far away from their home. They wanted to have a church in which they heard about the closeness and love of God … And now the church itself has become a sign, a special connection with the pope. This is joy and hope for us.”