Pope Francis praised Azerbaijan on Sunday as a model for a world divided by violent extremism, sidestepping criticism of the government for the sake of encouraging religious tolerance in an often-volatile region where Catholics are a minority.
Francis avoided direct mention of criticism in the West over allegations of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan and a recent government referendum that extends the president’s term and gives him new powers.
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Rather, the pope spent his 10 hours in the Azeri capital of Baku celebrating one of the world’s smallest Catholic communities and the good relations it enjoys with Azerbaijan’s Shiite Muslim majority and its Jewish, Orthodox and other religious communities. There are only about 300 Azeri Catholics in Azerbaijan, though the community also includes several thousand foreigners.
“These good relations assume great significance for peaceful coexistence and for peace in the world,” Francis told President Ilham Aliyev and government officials. “They demonstrate that among followers of different religious confessions, cordial relations, respect and cooperation for the common good are possible.”
As a case in point, Francis celebrated Mass in Baku’s new Catholic Church, which 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 after St. John Paul II visited in 2002, but it took the help of non-Christians to get the structure built.
“Have courage! Go on, without fear! Go ahead!” Francis urged the 400 Catholic faithful in the church and another 450 seated outside in the courtyard.
At the end of the Mass, 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 recognizable structure. Azerbaijan is famed for its magnificent carpets.
“I cannot contain my boundless joy,” parishioner Eva Agalarova, 61, said of Francis’ visit.
After celebrating Mass and meeting with Aliyev, Francis was meeting with the region’s Muslim sheik and representatives of all the major faiths in Baku’s main mosque before heading back to Rome after a weekend Caucasus visit that first took him to Georgia.
Last week, Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission said more than 80 percent 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 organizations including Amnesty International and Freedom House, said the moves would cement a dynastic rule in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation. The Azerbaijani government has rejected the criticism, saying the constitutional amendments aim to cut red tape and speed up economic reforms.
Francis didn’t address the criticism directly, though he spoke of the “significant efforts” Azerbaijan has made over the 25 years since its independence to strengthen civic institutions. Such a general exhortation suggested Francis didn’t want to rock the boat for his small flock here given the good relations the Catholic Church enjoys with the government.
Francis’ visit to Azerbaijan bookended his June visit to neighboring Armenia, where he appealed for peace between two former Soviet republics over Nagorno-Karabakh. The region is officially part of Azerbaijan, but since a separatist war ended in 1994, it has been under the control of forces that claim to be local ethnic Armenians but that Azerbaijan claims include the Armenian military.
In his speech, Francis expressed his solidarity with “those who have had to leave their land” and urged the countries involved to “courageously” find paths of peace. With the help of the international community, he urged both sides in the conflict to “grasp every opportunity” to end the conflict.
Zemfira Mamedova, 70, said the pope’s call for a peaceful resolution was the key expectation of his visit.
“The pope already was in Yerevan several months ago,” Mamedova said. “Now we are expecting his call for peace and for the return of our land in Karabakh. This is our most main expectation.”
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. He hosted the pope at both the presidential palace and the striking Zaha Hadid-designed conference center, one of the many modern buildings that have sprung up in Baku in recent years.