Pope John Paul II begins Saturday a trip to the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Armenia in Central Asia. The five-day visit comes amid heightened security concerns following the terrorist attacks in the United States. 81-year-old Pope John Paul appears unstoppable. He is traveling again, and this will be his 95th trip outside Italy.
Despite his failing health and concerns over security, he plans to go ahead with a trip to Kazakhstan and Armenia. First he travels to Kazakhstan, a predominantly Muslim nation with a tiny Catholic community.
Muslims in Kazakhstan have been urged to welcome the Pope and the Grand Mufti himself is to take part in the main Mass in the Kazakh capital, Astana. Amid tight security, the Pope will arrive in Astana late Saturday, but he plans to make an unusual evening visit to a monument to the victims of totalitarian regimes. He is expected to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands who died in concentration camps. Pope John Paul II will also remember the more than two-million forced to migrate to Kazakhstan during Josef Stalin's forced collectivization campaign between 1930 and 1950. On Tuesday, the Pope travels on to Armenia, which became a Christian country in the year 301, 36 years before the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Armenia is home to a large Orthodox community and only a few thousand Catholics. Together, the two Churches are celebrating 17 centuries of Christianity. In Armenia, the Pope will visit a people whose Christian faith has been tested by centuries of suffering at the hands of Arab rulers, pagan invaders, Ottoman Turks and the Soviet Union.
The Pope has said that Armenia is a "depository of a religious and cultural patrimony of singular richness" to the world. The Pope recently said he wants this trip to contribute to the cause of "the new evangelization and ecumenical dialogue" in the world.
His visit is also aimed at healing the wounds of Soviet oppression, and observers say that during his masses he will speak of rejuvenation and spiritual values.