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Azerbaijan: Pope Works Toward East-West Reconciliation On Historic Visit To Baku

  • Richard Greene

Three thousand people turned out for a historic mass conducted in Baku by Pope John Paul on 23 May, on the day marking the 10th anniversary of the Vatican's recognition of Azerbaijani independence from the Soviet Union. On a mission to improve relations between Catholics and those of other religions -- especially Muslims and Orthodox Christians -- the aged pope praised "the three great religions" of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. And, in a country known for its tradition of religious tolerance, he issued an unusually forthright statement that there have been "enough wars in the name of God."

Baku, Azerbaijan; 24 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty years ago, it would have seemed impossible, but this week, a former KGB general asked a Polish priest for help. Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev, a career Soviet intelligence officer and once a member of the Politburo, welcomed Pope John Paul to Baku on 22 May for a 24-hour visit.

Greeting the pontiff on his arrival, Aliyev called John Paul "a friend of all people and nations no matter what religion, race, or nationality they belong to."

And he asked the pope to help the refugees displaced by the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. "These people are in need of your kind words. They seek your consolation. They hope for the triumph of justice and they seek help from you," Aliyev said.

Nariman Qasimoglu, a professor of Koranic logic at Khazar University in Baku, sees irony in the former apparatchik's appeal to the pope, whom many credit with helping bring down the Soviet Union. But Qasimoglu adds that nothing can surprise the people of Azerbaijan any more: "I think we got used to such things. [Laughs.] When the times change, people have to change also. So we got used to such things."

The pope answered the Azerbaijani president's appeal, donating $100,000 in aid for refugees of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said. But he did not meet publicly with refugees, as some reports anticipated.

But while Aliyev may have been eager for the pope's help in putting Azerbaijan's problems back into the international spotlight, many people in Baku said they did not understand the pontiff's motivation for coming here. On the streets, polite enthusiasm seemed to compete with perplexity about the reason for the visit, the first ever of a pope to the country. There has been widespread coverage here of the pope's health problems, especially in light of his 82nd birthday on 19 May.

His hands and head tremble, a symptom of Parkinson's disease, and his speech is badly slurred. He was transported on a motorized platform on several occasions during the trip, and leaned on a cane and on aides when he walked. He regularly had aides deliver all or parts of speeches when he was in Baku, and struggled for breath when he spoke himself.

This trip, which also includes a three-day stop in Bulgaria before the Pope returns to Rome on 26 May, is his first foreign mission since September.

There was widespread speculation before the trip that the pope would reach out to Muslims from this nominally Shiite but largely secular country. But except for praising "followers of Islam in Azerbaijan for being open to hospitality and for having accepted the believers of other religions as brothers and sisters," the pontiff said little about Islam.

The Vatican said there were five reasons for the pope's trip, including the fact that the government of Azerbaijan invited him and because of his desire to show support for even the tiniest Catholic communities. Baku's roughly 120 Catholics, many of whom are foreigners, comprise the smallest Catholic congregation the pope has ever visited, the Vatican said. There were reports that the pontiff's entourage doubled the size of the country's Catholic community.

Another reason for the papal visit, according to the Vatican, is that John Paul visited Georgia and Armenia in 2001 and wanted to complete the triangle of South Caucasus countries.

John Allen, Rome correspondent of the U.S. "National Catholic Reporter," says another reason for the pope to visit the former Soviet republic is to honor people who held fast to their religion despite persecution: "This is a pope who doesn't want the world to forget the suffering of people who, especially during the Soviet era, suffered to hold onto their faith, and that has been sort of a leitmotif of many of his travels, especially the more recent ones as he ages."

Another powerful motivation, Allen says, is the pope's desire to reconcile the Catholic Church with the Orthodox Christian Church, more than 1,000 years after their schism, Allen said. The pope has made clear his desire to visit Moscow, but the Russian Orthodox clergy has strongly resisted the idea.

Allen said the visit to Azerbaijan -- the pope's sixth to a member-state of the Commonwealth of Independent States -- will not necessarily help his case with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii, but was designed with an eye toward Moscow: "The bigger picture is the desire to put Western and Eastern Christianity back together. The phrase the pope uses is 'The church must breathe with both lungs.' Now, does this trip affect the situation with Moscow? [In the] short term, it probably makes it worse. When the pope went to Ukraine, when he went to Kazakhstan and for that matter when he went to Armenia, Moscow was cool to those visits because they feel that those are areas that either belong to canonically Moscow or at least are within its sphere of influence. [In the] long term, it's more of an open book. Every one of these places the pope has gone to, the public reaction has tended to be very positive, [including among the Orthodox. Perhaps over the long term what the Pope is doing is changing hearts and minds."

There was a strong Orthodox showing for the Pope's mass in Baku, with one local Orthodox woman expressing no reservations about his visit.

"It's very pleasant, very good. We are very glad. We're very happy to welcome him to our city," she said.

The pope may also have had another motivation in making this trip: showing that he is still capable of travel. The visit to Baku was his first trip outside of Italy since Vatican insiders raised the possibility two weeks ago that the pope might consider retiring.

The scriptural reading from the Book of John -- which the pope read himself -- almost seemed designed to quash that speculation.

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep," John Paul read. "The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life -- only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord."