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Reporter’s notebook

In Kazakhstan, Vatican planners once again failed to anticipate the modes in which hotels in Eastern Europe might not be in full conformity with the moral protocol of papal travel. Last June in Ukraine, the party accompanying Pope John Paul II was lodged in a hotel featuring the city’s first strip club, promising “Slavic girls” ready to “excite your most secret desires.” This time in Astana, journalists covering the pope had a surprise when they checked into their rooms at the Inter-Continental Hotel: a complimentary three-pack of condoms. Given that most people traveling with the pope were staying only three nights, one wonders what the hotel was expecting.

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Hostile world powers these days are no longer content to put the squeeze on a rival’s land; they also want to colonize the airwaves. When journalists followed John Paul II to the Golan Heights in May, at one point during the bus ride they found “Welcome to Israel” flashed on their cell phones, although they were clearly on the Syrian side of the border. It was a reminder of the bitter disputes that have scarred that part of the world.

Few historical grudges run deeper, but Armenian antipathy to the Turks, blamed for the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in the early 20th century, is a contender. Thus it was especially ironic that when reporters arrived in Yerevan, Armenia, Sept. 25, their phones read, “Welcome to Turkey.”

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Psychologically, most people in Kazakhstan think of Afghanistan and the Taliban as a million miles away. The moderate Sunni Islam dominant in Kazakhstan bears no resemblance to the fanaticism of Taliban ideologues. In response to a question from NCR, President Nursultan Nazarabyev said at a Sept. 24 news conference that his country actually bans political parties based on religion. Yet however calm things may seem, the truth is that Afghanistan is only 180 miles from Kazakhstan’s southern border, and reminders of the proximity are not hard to find. Most pointedly, it turns out that a brother of Osama bin Laden, the lead suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, is the general contractor on several new buildings going up in Astana (though none of them was on John Paul’s itinerary). A government official reluctantly confirmed the rumor to reporters just as the pope arrived, though insisting that bin Laden’s brother had repudiated terrorism.

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On Sept. 24, John Paul attended a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, with representatives from the world of culture. The evening consisted largely of an orchestra playing numbers for the pope under the guidance of a series of conductors. At one point, a new maestro was calling the orchestra to attention when a loud BOOM rocked the hall. Security agents began barking furiously into their lapels, while the audience held its breath. In a moment it became clear what had happened: The new conductor had inadvertently slammed his baton into the microphone. The fear the noise had summoned, however, was a reminder of the tense world context in which the trip unfolded.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001