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In Azerbaijan, pope issues cry for peace

Baku, Azerbaijan

From a logistical point of view, it would probably have been easier to fly Azerbaijan’s entire Catholic population to Rome -- all 120 of them -- along with their two Salesian pastors, two nuns, and one brother, rather than hauling John Paul II out here to the edge of the Caspian Sea.

All by itself, the pope’s Airbus 321, with its contingent of journalists, security officers and the papal retinue, outnumbered the country’s Catholics. There is only one Catholic parish in Azerbaijan, Christ the Redeemer, and half its congregation is made up of diplomats and oil company employees.

In a poetic touch, the pope told this “little community” that the arms of the Bernini colonnade at St. Peter’s Basilica reach out to hold them too.

Yet pastoral care was only part of the logic for bringing the ailing 82-year-old pontiff to the Caucuses. John Paul also came to thump his bully pulpit in a part of the world scarred by conflict and religious antagonism. The pope issued an unequivocal, almost plaintive, cry that religion be a carrier of peace rather than war.

It’s a message with obvious import in the post-Sept. 11 world, and a review of recent events in the Caucuses makes the point. Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis fought a bloody war over the province of Nagorno-Karabach in the 1990s, leaving 30,000 dead and one million homeless. A fragile cease-fire has not eased tensions. Islamic separatists in nearby Cechnya are still trying to bomb their way to independence from Russia, while to the south of Azerbaijan lies Iran, one of the “axis of evil” nations identified by President George Bush as an exporter of religiously inspired terrorism.

In this context, the pope’s words seemed more than pious niceties.

“Enough of wars in the name of God!” he said in a meeting with leaders of religion, culture and the arts in Baku. “No more profanation of his holy name! … I ask religious leaders to reject all violence.”

Adding a passionate appeal, John Paul said: “As long as I have breath within me I shall cry out: ‘Peace, in the name of God!’ ”

The pope went out of his way to praise Azerbaijan as showing “a spirit of tolerance and mutual acceptance” inside its borders. He pointed out that in antiquity Zoroastrianism, a dualistic Persian religion, and Christianity lived side by side. The country’s Jewish roots reach back some 2,000 years. All learned to live in harmony with Islam after it became the majority religion.

Azerbaijani Islam is traditionally tolerant. Roughly 60 percent of Azerbaijani Muslims are Shi’ites, and 40 percent Sunni, making this the first majority Shi’ite nation John Paul has visited (it is the 24th majority Islamic country to receive the pope). Most Azerbaijani Muslims are theological and political moderates, and both President Heydar Aliyev and his strongest critics oppose the country’s small, pro-Iranian fundamentalist political party.

Nariman Qasimoglu, an Azerbaijani scholar of religion, told NCR that while a small minority of Muslim leaders opposed the pope’s visit on the grounds that it was a pretext for proselytism, most Muslims supported it, largely in the hope that John Paul would take Azerbaijan’s message to the international community.

The complicated geopolitics of the Caucuses region actually serve as a firebreak to religious conflict, since Azerbaijan’s most tense relationship, after Armenia, is with heavily Islamic Iran. The two nations disagree over offshore oil rights, and Iran worries about the 25 percent of its population that is ethnically Azeri and given to separatist impulses.

In a classic case of politics making odd bedfellows, the Islamic theocracy of Iran supports Christian Armenia in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, while overwhelmingly Muslim Azerbaijan is in the pro-Western, even pro-American camp.

Initially, John Paul’s plea for healing struggled to be heard over these bitter political divides. At the same airport ceremony in which the pope spoke of “peace and harmony,” Aliyev, the president, invited the pope to take his country’s side against Armenia, citing the refugees created by the war.

“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.

The exchange was itself full of irony, given that Aliyev, a former KGB general, was asking John Paul II, a Polish Catholic priest, for help. The historical reversal of fortune cannot have been lost on the pope, especially when, at his Mass on May 23, he recalled “the tragedy of Marxist persecution.”

Beyond war and peace, the pope also addressed social tensions in Azerbaijan, where massive oil deposits have done little to alleviate chronic poverty. At the beginning of the 20th century, Azerbaijan produced 50 percent of the world’s petroleum, and great dynasties such as the Rothschilds and the Nobles made their fortunes here. The potential for great wealth is still present, though most analysts believe corruption and mismanagement is squandering that prospect.

“Politics requires honesty and accountability,” John Paul said. “People do not forget! Just as they remember those who labor honestly, so they pass on bitter criticism of those who abused power to enrich themselves.”

The pope’s growing physical limits were clear in Baku, as a special lift was used to get him on and off his plane to avoid the need to climb stairs. The pope’s speech was badly slurred, and he read only the first few lines of his texts aloud himself, turning the rest over to someone else.

Yet Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls told reporters that the pope is determined to continue.

“The question is, does this impede him from carrying out his activities and making his trips,” Navarro said. “He’s showing that it does not.”

During the May 23 Mass, a 40-year-old Azerbaijani refugee from Armenia, Karim Azizov, surprised John Paul by stepping onto the platform supporting the papal altar and shouting at him. He was hustled away by security, but later met the pontiff when it emerged that all he wanted was a photo and an opportunity to kiss the pope’s hand. Officials had no immediate explanation for how Azizov, who relies on two crutches to walk, was able to come within 15 feet of the pope without being intercepted. The question has special relevance since officials said Azizov had been spotted at papal events the day before.

From Baku, the pope traveled to Bulgaria for a three-day pastoral visit that was to mark the latest chapter of his efforts to promote unity with Orthodox Christians.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002