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Catholic World News News Feature

Azerbaijan's Few Catholics Ready to Greet Pope May 21, 2002

AZERBAIJAN, May 21, 02 ( -- This week Pope John Paul II visits Azerbaijan, a state whose traditional mainstream faith is Islam. Although a small Catholic presence was established there by Polish political deportees in the 1790s, the present Catholic community numbers only 130.

The pastor, Father Josif Daniil, is himself a Belgian of Slavic descent. In describing his parish, he told an interviewer from the Baku newspaper, Ekho), "more than half are foreigners, mainly diplomats and employees of oil companies."

Why should the Pope visit so tiny a community? According to Father Daniil, the most important reason is that Pope John Paul II has already visited Armenia (last year, for the 1700th anniversary of Christianity there). Since Armenia and Azerbaijan are currently at loggerheads over Nagorno-Karabakh-– a mountainous province which for the past 80 years has been ruled by Azerbaijan, but which has a predominantly Armenian population. When the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and although for several years there has been an uneasy armistice, no formal resolution of the dispute has been reached. The papal visit, Father Daniil explained, is intended to "pre-empt speculation" that the Pope might be "tilting" toward the Armenian claim over Nagorno-Karabakh-- to demonstrate his impartiality.

The situation is thus somewhat similar to that of 1982, when the Pope’s long-planned visit to the United Kingdom took place in the closing days of the UK-Argentina war over the Falklands Islands, and a papal visit to Argentina was hastily arranged immediately afterward.

Significantly, the Pope was invited to Azerbaijan not by the Catholic community or the representative of any other faith, but by the Azerbaijani President, Heydar Aliyev, who sees the visit as a matter of major state importance. The Pope's trip, he stresses, will undoubtedly raise the standing of Azerbaijan in the international community, as well as perhaps easing the way toward a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Religious leaders in Azerbaijan have taken a different attitude toward the Pope's impending arrival. Islamic leaders have been ambivalent at best. The local head of the main Christian group in the country, Russian Orthodox Bishop Aleksandr of 'Baku and the Caspian region,' is actively opposed to the visit. The Orthodox prelate, echoing the criticism of Vatican that has been put forward frequently by the Moscow Patriarchate, sees the visit as yet another example of Vatican "intrusion" into the lands of the former Soviet Union. Bishop Aleksandr has stated that he and other Orthodox clerics would meet the Pope only if President Aliyev said their participation was absolutely necessary.

According to Father Daniil, the papal visit has another purpose: to recognize the tolerance of the Azerbaijani government toward other faiths-- a tolerance that, he said, arises both from the "mentality of our nation" and the policies of President Aliyev. The latter statement touches a sensitive issue. In recent months, the Azerbaijani government has obliged all religious groups and organizations in the country to renew their legal registration. A few groups-– including both Muslim and Christian groups-- have run into difficulties, and have attracted the attention of international human-rights organizations. However, the Azerbaijani authorities maintain that this is not a matter of religious discrimination, but simply of groups whose ideas and activities pose a threat to civil peace and public order.

As yet another reason for the Pope's interest in the small country, Father Daniil points out that Azerbaijan is situated in the Caucasus "at the crossroads between East and West, North and South." The country occupies a highly strategic position, and can act as "something like a bridge of peace." Azerbaijan, the Catholic pastor added, can "give a positive impulse to neighboring countries, which are faced with the threat of extremism."

Because of the tiny number of Catholics of Azerbaijan, the papal visit will be conducted on a radically reduced scale in comparison, in comparison with many other papal trips. The Church owns no premises suitable for the accommodation of an elderly invalid who has just made a long and tiring journey; the Pope will be accommodated in a Baku hotel-- marking the first time that the Pontiff has ever stayed in something other than a religious house. And when he celebrates Mass for the public, it will be not in the usual huge stadium, but in an indoor arena. The liturgical celebration is expected to attract a congregation of about 5,000, including a substantial number of Catholics visiting from other countries for the occasion.