This week's visit by Pope John Paul II to Azerbaijan will be one of the pontiff's most unusual foreign trips. The overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim -- but largely secular -- country has a population of fewer than 200 practicing Catholics, and no native priests. But Catholic leaders in Baku and the Vatican see the visit as important for precisely that reason, as the Pope makes an effort to reach out to Muslims, especially in the wake of 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States. Secular Azerbaijani thinkers, meanwhile, hope the pontiff's presence will help break the impasse in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with neighboring Armenia, and perhaps even open Azerbaijan to greater democracy.
Baku, 20 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Baku's Catholic community is so small it does not even have a building to house Pope John Paul II on his first visit to Azerbaijan on 22-23 May. For the first time in his 23-year-long papacy, John Paul will stay in a hotel.
The country's Catholic community, which dates back to the mid-19th century, was suppressed in the Soviet period. The parish was dissolved in 1932, and the church was torn down in 1937, to be replaced by a theater with a hammer and sickle over its massive columns.
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a young Polish priest arrived and set about reviving the parish, as his successor, Reverend Josef Daniel Pravda, related.
"In 1997, a young Polish priest, Father Jerzy Pilus, began to organize [the community], to gather the old grandmothers who had been members of the old church that was destroyed and new people who felt Catholic, or were drawn to Catholicism," Pravda said.
Pravda, a Slovak, arrived in September 2000 to take over a congregation that now numbers about 150. Based in an out-of-the-way parish house that serves both as church and home to him and the country's only other priest -- another Slovak, Reverend Stefan Kormancik -- the congregation is split roughly evenly between Azerbaijanis and foreigners working in Baku.
Given the small size of the community, Pravda said, it is nothing short of a miracle that John Paul is coming to Baku on his 96th foreign trip as pope. He heads to Bulgaria on 23 May for a two-day visit.
But while the 24-hour visit to Azerbaijan shows that the pope has as much regard for small Catholic communities as for large ones, Pravda said the pope's main audience in Azerbaijan will be the country's largely secular Shiite Muslim majority. He said the pope will preach a message of tolerance and mutual understanding, hoping to limit the potentially polarizing influence of neighboring Iran. "It seems to me that the visit has great political significance after 11 September. Azerbaijan is a natural bridge between north and south, east and west. It was part of the Silk Road, a crossroad of religious cultures. But there is a danger that Azerbaijan could become a radical Islamic state, especially since Islam here is Shiite. Iran could have great influence. The visit helps to confirm Azerbaijan on its journey to tolerance and democracy and an open spirit," Pravda said.
But while he expressed concern about the possible rise of radical Islam in Azerbaijan, Pravda added that, historically and at present, the country has been a model of religious tolerance among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and among different Christian churches.
"Relations between Christians and Muslims are good, as are relations between Jews and Muslims and Jews and Christians, and also between Russian Orthodox and Catholics. I think this country could be an example to the world of how religions can live together," Pravda said.
During his visit to Baku, the pope will meet the heads of three religious communities: Sheikh Allahshukur Pasha-Zade, the head of the Caucasus Muslim Board; Bishop Aleksandr, who leads the Russian Orthodox Church in Azerbaijan; and Semyon Ikhiidov, the president of the country's Mountain Jews. He will also conduct a Mass in Baku's 5,000-seat Sports Hall.
A Vatican expert on Catholicism's relations with Islam confirmed that the pope is keen to reach out to Azerbaijan's Muslims on this trip. Reverend Justo Lacunza Balda is president of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.
"The church and the Holy See are very much aware that relations between Muslims and Christians are not always easy. There are difficulties and problems, and events after 11 September obviously have not helped very much these kind of relations because there is a lot of misunderstanding. However, and in spite of it all, I think there is also a need for dialogue. John Paul is very much aware that concrete steps have to be taken in order to improve the quality of relations," Balda said.
Local analysts, on the other hand, see the pope's visit as largely political, not religious, in significance. They point out that his first stop in Baku will be Martyrs' Lane, the burial place of hundreds of Azerbaijanis who died fighting to keep the territory of Nagarno-Karabakh under Azerbaijani control.
Many Azerbaijanis are angry at what they see as the Armenian occupation of the region, over which the two countries fought a war in the early 1990s. Eight years after a cease-fire between Baku and Yerevan, Karabakh's status is still undecided.
Nariman Qasimoglu teaches at Baku's Khazar University and has translated the Koran into Azerbaijani. He hopes the pope's visit to Azerbaijan will break the deadlock.
"It has political significance for Azerbaijan. He might have opportunities to put pressure on Armenia to explain to them that they take an unfair position in this conflict, because nobody is entitled to occupy the other's territory," Qasimoglu said.
Qasimoglu, an activist in the opposition Popular Front party, also hopes the pope will encourage President Heidar Aliyev to allow greater democracy in the country. International observers have condemned elections in Azerbaijan as not free and fair, and the government has suppressed a number of recent opposition demonstrations.
Qasimoglu said the pope could encourage the government to move toward greater democracy.
"We have not enough democracy in our country. Our authorities try to limit democracy. We would like the pope to put pressure on our government to develop the democratic situation here," Qasimoglu said.
Improved relations between Christians and Muslims, an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, greater democracy -- there are high hopes indeed for the 82-year-old pope's brief visit to Azerbaijan, perhaps impossibly high.