- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

ASTANA, Kazakhstan Pope John Paul II arrived yesterday in this predominantly Muslim nation and was welcomed as a voice of reason in the region that has been tense since the terrorist attacks in the United States.
Pope John Paul made no specific mention of the Sept. 11 attacks or of the U.S. military buildup to strike back most likely in nearby Afghanistan but he expressed "my good wishes to all people of good will" who promote peace.
In a speech at the airport, the pope also stressed that political controversies should be settled through dialogue, not force of arms.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev thanked the pope for going ahead with the visit despite the "troubled situation in the world" and praised him for stressing that religion should not be blamed for the attacks, "thus protecting the world from Islamophobia."
"The tragedy that happened in the United States presents a threat of division and confrontation between civilizations and religions," he said.
Thousands of black-bereted riot police and security agents lined the main streets of Astana, with agents standing every 50 feet along the route of the pope's motorcade.
Hours before the pope arrived, an armored personnel carrier, fitted with a small cannon and carrying snipers in black balaclava helmets, pulled up to a memorial he planned to visit a sign of the "unprecedented" security measures Kazakh officials promised to take in this sleepy Central Asian capital.
Authorities in the former Soviet republics that lie between Russia and Afghanistan have expressed concerns about militant Islam. Mr. Nazarbayev predicted last year that Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban rulers and Osama bin Laden, now the prime suspect in the U.S. terrorist attacks, would target Kazakhstan and Central Asia in the coming years.
The Vatican denied reports that it had asked for or received assurances from Washington that U.S. forces would hold off an attack during Pope John Paul's six-day stay in Kazakhstan and Armenia.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters aboard the plane that the Vatican had taken no special security precautions for the trip, and that there had been "no direct or indirect" threats against the pope.
The frail 81-year-old pontiff was severely stooped as he descended from his plane, with aides close by to assist him. He blessed a basket of Kazakh soil presented by two women in traditional embroidered costumes.
His hands trembled and his voice was slurred, symptoms of Parkinson's disease. A small podium placed on his lap toppled, and Mr. Nazarbayev bent down and retrieved the pages of his speech.
"I greet the Islamic leaders and faithful, who boast a long religious tradition in this region," the pope said. Kazakhstan's top Islamic leader, the grand mufti, was among the dignitaries.
Roman Catholics make up just 2 percent to 3 percent of the population of 15 million in Kazakhstan, a country four times the size of Texas. The majority religions are Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity.
Some 70,000 to 150,000 Catholic pilgrims from Russia and Central Asia are expected in Astana, which was declared the capital only a few years ago and has a population of just 350,000. They will be put up in hotels, student hostels, campgrounds and railway carriages, officials said.
Mr. Nazarbayev's security officers, Vatican bodyguards, and more than 3,300 Kazakh police will be deployed at the pope's open-air Masses today.
The pope's first stop on his four-visit was a memorial to the victims of Soviet repression.

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