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Pope Francis Visits Majority-Muslim Azerbaijan

  • RFE/RL

Pope Francis has led a Mass in Azerbaijan's capital and held talks with the country's leader, as he continues a swing through the Caucasus preaching tolerance and peace.

Upon his arrival at Baku's airport on October 2, Francis celebrated Mass in the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"You are a little flock that is so precious in God's eyes," Francis told the more than 800 people who followed the Mass inside the church and outside in the courtyard.

Azerbaijan has fewer than 300 Catholics in its predominantly Shi'ite Muslim population.

The pontiff later met with longtime President Ilham Aliyev, who called the visit "historic."

"Your visit to Azerbaijan is very important for relations between Azerbaijan and the Vatican, including the dialogue between civilizations," Aliyev said.

"People of all religions live in Azerbaijan in an atmosphere of friendship, as one family," he added.

During his 10-hour visit to Baku, Pope Francis also met with representatives of all the main faiths and he also visited a mosque where he said God should never be used to justify fundamentalism.

"God cannot be used for personal interests and selfish ends; he cannot be used to justify any form of fundamentalism, imperialism, or colonialism," the pope said in his remarks to Muslims, Christians, Jews, and members of other faiths at the mosque, named after Azerbaijan's late president, Heidar Aliyev.

The Roman Catholic Church maintains agreeable relations with oil- and gas-rich Azerbaijan despite Western accusations of egregious rights violations and jailings and other punishment of dissent under Ilham Aliyev's watch since he took over from his father in 2003.

"I hope the pope listens to the pleas of international human rights organizations and speaks up for release of political prisoners," human rights activist Rasul Cafarov told dpa news agency.

Cafarov was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison last year on tax-fraud charges. An international campaign for his release led to his presidential pardon earlier this year.

The visit follows a stop in neighboring Georgia that was marred by a conspicuous snub by the local Orthodox Christian authorities and a hounding by right-wingers who denounced what they regard as his efforts to proselytize.

On October 1 in Tbilisi, Pope Francis said Mass before just a few thousand people at a stadium that seats tens of thousands -- one of the smallest crowds in his three-year papacy.

The Georgian Orthodox Church decided not to send an official delegation to the Mass at Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, saying that Orthodox faithful cannot participate in Catholic services.

The Orthodox patriarchate said the delegation had stayed away "by mutual agreement" with the Vatican.

Georgia is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian, but has a 2.5 percent Catholic minority, according to Vatican estimates.

The visit to Baku comes a little over three months after the pope received a warm welcome in Azerbaijan's Caucasus archrival, Armenia, where he was met by cheering throngs and greeted by local Orthodox Christian leaders.

In Armenia, Francis alluded to the ongoing conflict between Yerevan and Baku over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, warning that "not making peace on account of a small patch of land -- because that is all it is -- is something grim."

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a conflict over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for years.

Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people.

Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict have brought little progress.

With reporting by AP, APA, and AFP