Fran­cis meets Az­eri re­li­gious lead­ers

7 Days in Dubai - - GLOBAL NEWS -

Pope Fran­cis flew into Azer­bai­jan for a 10-hour visit aimed at en­cour­ag­ing the coun­try’s mul­ti­faith so­ci­ety.

Azer­bai­jan, the sec­ond-largest Shia Mus­lim na­tion af­ter Iran, has a tiny Catholic pop­u­la­tion – fewer than 300 Az­eris are Catholics.

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

Fran­cis was due to meet with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all the main faiths as well as Pres­i­dent Hey­dar Aliyev be­fore head­ing back to Rome last night af­ter a week­end visit that took him first to Ge­or­gia.

Last week, Azer­bai­jan’s Cen­tral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion said more than 80 per cent of vot­ers backed a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment ex­tend­ing the pres­i­den­tial term from five to seven years, and grant­ing the pres­i­dent the right to dis­solve par­lia­ment, cre­at­ing new vice pres­i­den­tial jobs and can­celling age lim­its.

Aliyev’s op­po­nents, as well as rights or­gan­i­sa­tions 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 are in­tended to cut the red tape and speed up eco­nomic re­forms.

It was un­known if Fran­cis would press Aliyev on the is­sue or other broader crit­i­cisms of al­leged hu­man rights abuses and sup­pres­sion of dis­sent.

Fran­cis was due to cel­e­brate Mass in the Catholic church that was built af­ter St John Paul II vis­ited Azer­bai­jan in 2002.

Af­ter that visit, Aliyev do­nated a plot of land on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal and lo­cal Mus­lims and Jews helped build it.

“I can­not con­tain my bound­less joy,” 61-year old parish­ioner Eva Agalarova said of Fran­cis’ visit. “It is both joy and hap­pi­ness that the faith gives me.”

Fran­cis’ visit to Azer­bai­jan comes af­ter a June visit to neigh­bour­ing Ar­me­nia, in hopes of bring­ing a mes­sage of peace be­tween two for­mer Soviet re­publics over Nagorno-Karabakh.

That 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.

Lo­cal Az­eri me­dia didn’t give much at­ten­tion to the pa­pal visit.

VISIT: The Pope ar­riv­ing in Azer­bai­jan

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