At the recent General Assembly of United Nations World Tourism Organization in Kazakhstan this month, eTN publisher Juergen T. Steinmetz had the opportunity to chat with Bishop Janusz Kaleta of Holy See, the Apostolic Administrator of Atyrau, a city in Kazakhstan. Modern Atyrau, famous for its oil and fish industries, has 180,000 inhabitants of which 90 percent are Kazakhs and the remainder of the population is mostly Russians with some other ethnic groups such as Tatars and Ukrainians. As such, the main religion is Islam, but Christianity is also practiced.
When eTN asked Bishop Kaleta why the Catholic Church is interested in Kazakhstan, he explained, “If someone comes to work for some period of time here, we think they should have the opportunity to come and pray in a church,” and so the church has created a presence for the 1 percent of the population that is Catholic. According to Bishop Kaleta, Kazakhstan is a relatively good democratic place where one has religious freedom. He shared, “Of course, every place has some troubles, some problems, but basically the Catholic Church is allowed to be here, and we don’t have very big problems.”
Bishop Kaleta said that tourism is important to the Vatican. Although there is no centralized body that promotes tourism, there are some coordinators and centers that advertise pilgrimages, but the main work is done in and by the churches. The Bishop said: “If you think about Europe, most of its architecture is connected with churches. It would be good to educate the people to honor these places.” He added that religious tourism in the form of pilgrimages is seen as a very good development, because “they are mostly connected not with the most rich of society; most are of average to the lower incomes.” And evidently, it is important that they reach people from all walks of life, or at least people of various financial levels.
Perhaps, though, they are not so all encompassing about tourism in the form of gay and lesbian travel. ETN asked the Bishop if the Vatican’s stand was clearly against this form of tourism, and the Bishop answered: “The church teachings are from the Bible. If we change this teaching, we will not be the Catholic Church. Don’t expect the Catholic church to change these issues, because it is our identity.” When asked if the Vatican is open to dialogue about welcoming such homosexual groups of tourists in the future, Bishop Kaleta responded that “such demonstrations are just not ethical.”
Publisher Steinmetz clarified that what was meant by gay travel was traveling for the purpose of a visit, not as a demonstration. To this the Bishop replied, “I consider if someone is homosexual, it is a provocation and an abuse of this place. Try to go to a mosque if you are not Muslim. It is abuse of our buildings and our religion because the church interprets our religion that it is not ethical. We expect respect of our church as we expect to respect that a person does not have to belong to the Catholic Church. If you have different ideas, go to a different location.”
Tourism is one of the principal sources of revenue in the economy of the Vatican City. It is a popular destination for tourists, especially Christians, wishing to see the Pope or practice their faith. The main tourist attractions in the Vatican City include the Basilica of St. Peter, Saint Peter’s Square, the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and the Raphael Rooms.