Friday, March 3, 2023

Sufism and Holy Places Brought Ethnic Russian to Islam in Kazakhstan; Papal Visit Brought Ethnic Kazakh to Catholicism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Feb. 28 – Most people in most countries remain in the religion of their parents, either because they see it as part of their tradition or because their parents have made it such an important part of their lives. But there are an increasing number of exceptions, even in places where one might not expect it such as Kazakhstan.

            Akhmet Isayev, an Almaty journalist, interviewed two people who have broken with the faith of their parents and decided to become part of a different faith and therefore an entirely different religious tradition. Both said their family and friends were entirely supportive (

            But perhaps the most interesting responses of the two were the factors which led them to this change: Sergeu Alekseyenok, born into a Russian Orthodox family, has become a Muslim as a result of his study of Sufi texts and his visits to Muslim holy places, typically the tombs of respected Sufi leaders.

            And Timur Rakhimbayev, born into a Kazakh Muslim family, decided to become a Roman Catholic almost overnight in response to the 2001 visit to Kazakhstan by Pope John Paul II.  Like Alekseyenok, he says that his conversion has transformed his life but in ways that have not led to a break with others in his community who haven’t converted.

            The impact of Sufi holy places in the first instance and of a papal visit in the second are extremely noteworthy given that most who study the first focus on the ways in which holy places solidify those who are already part of the Sufi tradition rather than attracting new converts and those who discuss papal visits typically see them primarily as mobilizing the faithful.

            Such conversions are likely to remain relatively few in number, but they are certain to increase as traditional religious ties weaken and new possibilities for travel and communication increase. 

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