Francis meets Azeri religious leaders
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