Aragonese by birth and Kazakh by soul, Monsignor José Luis Mumbiela, bishop of Almatí and president of the Episcopal Conference, speaks with ABC from the great city of Kazakhstan to narrate the hardships experienced by the population since the outbreak of the protests on the 2nd of January. Ordained a priest in 1995 and assigned to Kazakhstan in 1998, Monsignor Mumbiela has been in charge since 2011 of a community of some 100,000 Catholics – a significant minority in a country of 20 million with 60 percent Muslims and 30 percent Christians, mostly Russian Orthodox. Its commitment is to help forge a system of coexistence between races and religions, unprecedented in the region.
—How was the Kazakh Catholic community formed, monsignor?
—It exists in its current dimensions relatively recently. Most of it comes from the Catholic Germans, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians deported by Stalin after World War II.
—Have they suffered any kind of persecution before or during the violent protests these days?
-They have suffered the same hardships as the rest of the Kazakh citizens, victims according to all the data we have of a power struggle between the elites to destroy the transitional government of President Tokayev.
—Has calm returned to the streets of Almatí, the country’s main city and where the violence was concentrated?
—Yes, thank God life is back to normal, except for some irregularities in transportation. The police presence in the city is minimal and everyone is confident that – as the president has promised – the Russian forces will withdraw completely in the coming days once the outbreak of violence has been resolved.
—You speak of an internal struggle for power, but in the West the news agencies and the press in general have tended to give another version. There was talk of a crazy rise in the price of gas, of a “brutal” repression by the Tokayev police, and of Putin’s attempt to take advantage of the circumstances to expand his sphere of sovereignty towards that former Soviet republic…
—My work is exclusively for souls. but I can give you my testimony of what I could see and contrast with others. There were three moments in what happened. The first was the peaceful protests in western Kazakhstan over the rise in gas prices, to which Tokáyev responded, in my opinion, with a negotiating spirit. When those protests died down, others broke out in Almatí: a horde of thousands of people with sticks and stones went out to loot the center. And immediately afterwards armed men appeared, who took over the town hall and other public places. These were well-prepared professionals of violence, who I would not hesitate to describe as ‘terrorists’.
“As far as we know, they were people prepared in advance for this coup. They apparently used Kazakh jihadist cells and mobilized thousands of people recruited in towns near Almatí, to enter and loot the city. Among the thousands of detainees these days there is a bit of everything: violent people who only wanted to steal, police aggressors, many under the influence of drugs.
“Do you think that the first president and autocrat Nazarbayev is behind the alleged plot?”
“Nazarbayev is on his way out.” President Tokayev has arrested former top intelligence officials, and has accused some oligarchs of being behind the coup to preserve their interests. I sincerely believe that the decision to call in the Russian troops was necessary: it was made by the president when he realized that the security forces and intelligence were no longer under his control, and that it was the only way to preserve the stability of the country. .
—If in your opinion Tokayev has acted correctly, why did he order the police to shoot without asking?
—Once again the news was given without the context. The president was referring to the first moment of the curfew hours, when the terrorists had taken over the city hall and used weapons. Afterwards, those who have been detained during the curfew have been detained for 24 hours. Look, this morning I went to the hospital to visit an injured friend: the person in charge of religious affairs at the town hall, who is Muslim and has helped us a lot. He was chased by the assailants and was shot in the back. He is a great person, like so many who have been victims these days of a plot prepared by people who do not want to see this country become a model of coexistence.
—Kazakhstan is the largest former Soviet republic, and since its creation it has been held up as a model of growth and stability, despite being ruled at first by an autocrat, Nazarbayev, and now by a former diplomat who has called in Russian troops to help him. …
—It is not a perfect country, but I believe that a unique model in Central Asia of coexistence between different religions and different races is being created in Kazakhstan. We Catholics would like more help, but we enjoy a high level of freedom in religious matters. To judge other freedoms, it is necessary to place the country in the context of the situation from which it comes, when it belonged to the USSR, and consider that it is a process that takes time.
—What is the reason for the commitment that the various religions seem to have adopted in favor of this government?
—All the religious communities of Kazakhstan are convinced that it is necessary to build together this country, which we love because its population deserves it. I am convinced that those who have encouraged the savage violence of these days are not from here because that has never been the way of the Kazakhs.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism