Faith Matters

Pope Francis encourages religious tolerance in Azerbaijan

Pope Francis arrives to the Aliyev congress center for a meeting with the authorities in Baku, Azerbaijan

Pope Francis has travelled to Azerbaijan for a visit aimed at encouraging the country's inter-religious harmony, while overlooking criticism of a referendum that extends the president's term and powers.

Francis' first stop was to celebrate Mass for Azerbaijan's tiny Catholic community.

The Caucasus nation - the second-largest Shiite Muslim country after Iran - has fewer than 300 Azeri Catholics.

Several thousand foreigners make up the rest of its Catholic community, and Azeri Jews, Zoroastrians and other minorities round out Azerbaijan's religious mix.

"Some may think that the pope wastes so much time: travelling so many kilometres to visit a small community," Francis told more than 400 people in the church in Baku and another 450 who followed the Mass outside in the courtyard.

But he said he was merely doing as God did in delivering Jesus among the Jews of Jerusalem. "In this, the pope imitates the Holy Spirit. He also descended from heaven to a small community."

"Have courage. Go on, without fear. Go ahead."

Francis was to meet with the region's Muslim sheik and representatives of all the main faiths as well as president Ilham Aliyev before heading back to Rome after a weekend visit that first took him to Georgia.

The Pope has denounced the use of violence in God's name and has stressed the need for greater interfaith dialogue. In many ways, the Vatican sees Azerbaijan as a model of religious tolerance given the interfaith harmony that characterises relations among its Muslims, Christians and Jews.

The Catholic church where Francis celebrated Mass was built with the financial help of Muslims and Jews, according to the Salesian priests who preside there.

The Azeri government donated a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital, Baku, after Saint John Paul II visited in 2002, but it took the help of non-Christians to get the structure built.

"I cannot contain my boundless joy," parishioner Eva Agalarova, 61, said of Francis' visit. "It is both joy and happiness that the faith gives me."

The half-dozen Salesian priests who minister to Azerbaijani Catholics gave Francis a hand-woven carpet depicting both the church and the Maiden's Tower, a 12th-century bastion in Baku's walled Old City that is probably Azerbaijan's most recognisable structure.

Last week, Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission said more than 80 per cent of voters in the former Soviet republic backed a constitutional amendment extending the presidential term from five to seven years. Other provisions granted the president the right to dissolve parliament, create new vice presidential jobs and cancel age limits.

Aliyev's opponents, as well as human rights organisations including Amnesty International and Freedom House, said the moves cement a dynastic rule in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation.

The Azerbaijani government has rejected the criticism, saying the constitutional amendments aimed to cut red tape and speed up economic reforms.

Baku's Muslim residents welcomed Francis' presence.

"Islam is a tolerant religion and it accepts all faiths," a Muslim woman, Aygun Mikayilova, said. "I will welcome the pope's visit if he is bringing a message of peace, calm and tolerance."

Aliyev, in office since succeeding his father in 2003, has firmly allied the Shiite Muslim nation with the West, helping secure its energy and security interests and offset Russia's influence in the strategic Caspian region.

Earlier, Pope Francis' efforts to improve relations with the Georgian Orthodox Church have suffered a setback after the Orthodox patriarchate decided at the last minute not to send an official delegation to his Mass, and reminded the Orthodox faithful they cannot participate in Catholic services.

Francis pressed on with his agenda, insisting that Catholics must never try to convert Orthodox and bowing in prayer alongside the Orthodox patriarch after they both lit a candle in the Orthodox cathedral.

The Pope called for the historical divisions that have "lacerated" Christianity to be healed through patience, trust and dialogue.

"We are called to be one in Jesus Christ and to avoid putting disharmony and divisions between the baptised first, because what unites us is much more than what divides us," he told Patriarch Ilia, in the spiritual capital of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The developments on the second and final day of Francis' visit to Georgia reflected the "one step forward, two steps back" progress that often accompanies the Vatican's outreach to the Orthodox Church, which split from the Catholic Church more than 1,000 years ago over issues including the primacy of the Pope.

Before Francis' Caucasus visit, a Vatican spokesman had said the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate would send a delegation to the Mass in a Tbilisi sports stadium "in a sign of the rapport" - suggesting that the chill which had clouded St John Paul II's visit in 1999 had warmed.

Francis also received an unexpectedly warm welcome from the Orthodox leader upon his arrival on Friday.

But Orthodox patriarchate spokeswoman Nato Asatiani said the delegation had stayed away from the Mass "by mutual agreement".

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