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Azerbaijan Report: May 24, 2002

24 May 2002
Pope John Paul II In Baku
Pope John Paul II visited Azerbaijan on 22-23 May. First of all, the Pope visited the Martyrs' Alley and laid flowers on the graves of those who sacrificed their lives for Azerbaijan's independence. The Pope met with Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev. On 23 May, the Pope celebraed Mass in the Palace of Hand Games in Baku. The palace was full of people of different religions and nationalities, Catholics and representatives of other religious faiths. The people were waiting for the Pope with great impatience, which proved that the Pope enjoys real fame and prestige in Azerbaijan, which is the 132nd country he has visited. In his remarks to the ceremony, John Pope II said in Azerbaijani "God save Azerbaijan" and wished happiness and progress to the people of Azerbaijan.

The Pope also met with a group of Azerbaijani refugees.

(Zerkhanim Akhmedli)

John Paul II In Baku
Twenty years ago, it would have seemed impossible, but this week, a former KGB general asked a Polish priest for help. Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliev, a career Soviet intelligence officer and once a member of the Politburo, welcomed Pope John Paul II 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." 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 says that nothing can surprise the people of Azerbaijan any more:

"I think we got used to such things. When the times is changed, people have to be changed also. So we got used to such things." he said.

The Pope answered the president's appeal, donating $100,000 in aid for refugees of the conflict, his spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said. 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 part 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 his desire to show his support for even tiny Catholic communities. Baku's roughly 120 Catholics, many of them foreigners, comprise the smallest Catholic congregation he has ever visited, the Vatican said, and there were reports that the Pope's entourage doubled the size of the country's Catholic community.

Another reason is that the Pope visited Georgia and Armenia last year, and wanted to complete the triangle of South Caucasus countries, the Vatican said. John Allen, Rome correspondent of the 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, especially during the Soviet era who 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." he said.

Another powerful motivation is the Pope's desire to reconcile the Catholic Church with the Orthodox, 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 resisted the idea.

Allen said the visit to Azerbaijan -- the Pope's sixth to a member of the CIS -- will not necessarily help his case with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksey II, but was designed with an eye towards Moscow. There was a strong Orthodox showing for the Pope's mass in Baku, with one local Orthodox woman expressing no reservations about his visit.

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," he 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."

(Richard Allen Greene)

The 24 May issues of the governmental newspapers "Azerbaijan" and "Khalg" carry major articles about the Pope's visit to Azerbaijan as well as the Days of the Ukrainian culture held in Azerbaijan.

According to the 24 May issue of the independent newspaper "525", Sergei Mironov, chairman of the Russian Federation Council visiting Baku has expressed his views in connection with the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. He said any peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh is acceptable for Russia, and no foreign pressure must be exerted on the conflict parties. Mironov says that Azerbaijani and Armenian leadership must conduct a direct dialogue on resolving the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

The 24 May issue of the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" carries an interview with political scientist Vafa Guluzadeh, who dismised as "meaningless" an Iranian diplomat's statement that if "Azerbaijan wants to open consulate in Tebriz, Iran will see no problem here and welcome it." Guluzadeh says that if the Iranian side did not object to it, then it would have long clarified the reasons why the consulate has not been opened yet. According to Guluzade, it shows that Iran does not intend to open a consulate in Tebriz. Guluzade says that sometimes "yes " in the diplomatic language means "no" and some "no" means "yes." Iranians use this method and de-facto say "no" by saying "yes" to opening the consulate, Guluzadeh says.

Mubariz Gurbanli, a member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, gave an interview to the government newspaper "Khalg" saying that Iranian-Azerbaijani relations have major potential and perspectives.

In an article entitled "Iran is being isolated in the region" carried by the 24 May issue of the opposition newspaper "Hurriyyet," Rasim Bayramov writes that not all Iranian media outlets regarded Aliev's visit equivocally. The prestigious newspaper "Iran News" carried a very hostile article the day Aliyev arrived in iran. The Azerbaijani president was accused in the article for his "pro-American, pro-Russian and pro-Israeli" position. According to the author, Tehran's ties with Moscow and CIS have become cooler and de-facto reached the level of hostility. It is impossible to say in the present situation whether Iran will obtain any economic priority by taking part in the South-East transport corridor. Because the U.S., being Iran's enemy and West European countries have interests in this corridor. The author says that in order to settle all these problems, Tehran must put an end to the confrontation with Moscow in the Caspian Sea and begin a dialogue with the U.S.

In the 24 May issue of the independent newspaper "Zerkalo," Mirgadirov writes about the activity of international mediators in seeking a solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. According to the author, the international mediators, particularly Russia and the U.S. intend to take more serious steps this year to solve the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The author recalls the Reykjavik meeting of the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan. Turkey and Armenia as showing Turkey's increased interest in this. Even the mediators know the necessity of cooperation among these countries. The author says that the mediators do not have new proposals and recalls their former variants. But the conflict sides have not yet agreed to any of these proposals.

In an interview with the 24 May issue of the pro-governmental newspaper "Yeni Azerbaijan," parliament deputy Shahlar Asgarov commented on the radicalism observed in the government-opposition relations. He said despite the strengthening of stability, there are aggressive and anxious forces as well. Asgarov divides the Azerbaijani opposition into two parts, saying that one part is the aggressive opposition. According to Asgarov, they are the people connected with Azerbaijan's future, but they are becoming aggressive, as their personal interests are not realized. Asgarov also said that opposition does not have a stronghold and seeks one abroad. He stressed that despite all this, the government is very patient and tolerant with the opposition.

Arif Hajiyev, deputy head of the Musavat party, gave an interview to the independent newspaper "Zerkalo" saying that the opposition will not compromise any longer and has retained the option of staging a protest action on Azadlig square.

In an interview with the 24 May issue of the opposition newspaper "Hurriyyet," Boyuk Rasuloglu, Chairman of the Committee for Protection of the World Azerbaijanis' Rights, said that the people have decided to gather together over the past 4-5 years of their activity.

The 24 May issue of the governmental newspaper "Azerbaijan" carries a report entitled "Economic development gains speed in our country" saying that the high-level development of the economy is accompanied by an improvement in the people's wellbeing.

(Compiled and translated by Arifa Kazimova)