Kazakhstan sits in a region that is bracing for a possible U.S. military strike against Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Relations between Kazakhstan and Afghanistan are already strained. Last year, President Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbajev warned that Osama bin Laden and the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan had chosen Kazakhstan as a place to expand their influence.
Fundamentalist Muslim preachers and terrorists have swarmed over the border into the south of Kazakhstan, where in recent years fundamentalists have built more than 1,000 mosques, with help from Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Nazarbajev, looking to counterbalance the strong Turkish and Saudi influence in his country, has been anxious for a visit by the Pope. In fact, the Fides news agency predicts that John Paul II´s visit will help Kazakhstan to increase its contacts with the international community, especially the West.
Nazarbajev has also sought closer ties with the European Community, to lessen his country´s dependence on the Muslim world.
In 1996 he founded Eurasia University, which allows young Kazakhs to spend time in Germany, France, the United States and Russia. Kazakhstan has also been successful in securing a place for its soccer teams in the Uefa Cup championship.
Kazakhstan has long been a bridge between Eurasian cultures, givens its proximity to the Silk Route. But now, it faces the challenge of maintaining a balance among its more than 100 ethnic groups, including the Kazakhs, who comprise 53.4% of the population.
The remaining groups -- Russians (30%), Ukrainians (3.7%), Germans (2.4%) and Poles (0.3%), among others -- feel detached from the country´s political mainstream.
Since 1991, many of Kazakhstan´s people have emigrated. The first to leave were the Jews, a culturally active minority. Many Germans followed suit. Then went the Russians, who no longer controlled the place they had long regarded a colony. Now the Poles are leaving, with the help of the Warsaw government.
Filling the void are the arriving Kazakh groups, who fled to Mongolia at the time of the Russian Revolution.
Emigration continues because of Kazakhstan´s poverty and climate. About 43% of the population lives below the poverty level. And except for the south, in the Altai and Tien Shan mountain regions, the country sees temperature extremes that range from 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) in the brief summer, to minus 40 degrees Celsius (-40 F) in the long winter.
Kazakhstan is rich in primary resources, however, especially oil. Foreign companies -- from the United States, Japan, China, Belgium and Italy, and elsewhere -- exploit the resources.
More than half of Kazakhstan´s 15 million people are Sunni Muslims. Just over 6 million are Orthodox, and some 360,000 are Latin-rite Catholics. There is also a small community of Greek-Catholics.
Since 1991, following the ice age of atheism, 600 churches and sects have registered officially in the country, including many Protestant fundamentalist groups. The government fears the latter almost as much as it does Muslim fundamentalists. "Proselytism" and active missionary work are prohibited.
Soviet repression weakened Sufi-inspired Islam in Kazakhstan, a variety that showed tolerance and openness toward non-Muslims.
"Kazakh Islam" is now being challenged as orthodox and fundamentalist Muslims, reinforced by the influx of like-minded preachers, enjoy a revival.