Pope Francis will make the 16th foreign trip of his papacy later this week, when he completes a journey through the Caucasus region he began in June by visiting Armenia with stops in both Georgia and Azerbaijan.

From the point of view of the program, the most important element is clearly Georgia, featuring outreach to that nation’s largely Orthodox population. The pope will spend two nights in Tblisi, the Georgian capital, and not even one in Baku.

Instead, the pope arrives in Azerbaijan mid-morning on Sunday, spends a few hours, and then gets back on his plane to return to Rome.

(One hopes the visit will be a bit better secured than the last time a pope was in Azerbaijan, with St. Pope John Paul II in 2002, when a 40-year-old Azerbaijani refugee from Armenia “rushed” the papal altar. I put “rushed” in quotes because the man was on two crutches, and hence wasn’t actually capable of “rushing” anyone, yet there he was on the altar before anyone was the wiser. Fortunately, he had no evil intent and simply wanted a picture with John Paul.)

The temptation will be to see Francis’s stop in Azerbaijan as no more than a necessary courtesy call to balance his visit to Armenia three months ago, to make it clear the pope is not taking sides in regional disputes, and also to show respect to Muslims.

That way of framing things, however, misses the key point about the admittedly brief stop in Azerbaijan, a small nation of 9.4 million: This is the first time Pope Francis will visit a largely Shiite nation.

In the other countries with a majority Muslim population Francis has visited so far – including Palestine, Jordan, Albania, Turkey, and Bosnia-Herzegovina – the Islamic community is dominated by Sunnis, and Shiites are either a distinct minority or practically non-existent.

In other words, the Azerbaijan stop is not simply about Catholic/Muslim relations, but more specifically about ties between Catholicism and Islam’s second largest branch, representing somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

While Shiites are a clear minority in terms of Islam overall, they loom large in the all-important Persian Gulf region, and in Iran, they also dominate arguably one of the two or three most powerful and consequential Islamic nations in the world.

It will be fascinating to see if Pope Francis is able to move the ball on what many observers have long regarded as the potential for a natural Catholic/Shiite alliance.

Shi’a Islam is usually viewed with alarm in the West, due largely to memories of the Iranian Revolution coupled with the anti-Semitic and anti-Western screeds of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet the Shi’a spectrum also includes figures such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq, nominated by Iraqi Christians in 2005 for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Over the years, Catholic-Muslim relations have tended to focus on Sunnis. Yet in some ways it’s an odd match; with their low-church view of clergy, congregationalist models of community life, and sola scriptura approach to the Qur’an, Sunnis often resemble Calvinists much more than Catholics.

On the other hand, Iranian author Vali Nasr in his 2006 book The Shia Revival ticks off an impressive string of parallels between Shi’a and Catholicism.

  • A strong emphasis on clerical authority.
  • An approach to the Qur’an accenting both scripture and tradition.
  • A deep mystical streak.
  • Devotion to a holy family (in the case of Shi’ites, the blood relatives of Muhammad).
  • Devotion to saints (the Twelve Imams).
  • A theology of sacrifice and atonement through the death of Hussein, the son of Muhammad’s cousin Ali, who was martyred in Karbala, Iraq, in 680.
  • Belief in free will (as opposed to the Sunni doctrine of predestination).
  • Holy days.
  • Healing shrines.
  • Intercessory prayer.
  • Strongly emotional forms of popular devotion, especially the festival of Ashoura commemorating Hussein’s death.

Nasr compares a Shi’ite pilgrim in Karbala to a Catholic at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. He also writes that the mosque of Jamkaran on the outskirts of the holy city of Qom in Iran, where Shi’ites believe the legendary Twelfth Imam once appeared, plays a role similar to Fatima in Catholicism.

Another Iranian author, Reza Aslan, says that rational interpretation of Islamic law by Shi’ite clergy potentially creates a flexibility sometimes lacking in Sunni Islam, which is shackled to a more literal reading of the Qur’an.

Aslan believes Shi’a-influenced societies may be more amenable to experimentation with democracy, human rights and pluralism, provided they’re grounded in religious reasoning — as, for example, in Catholic social theory.

All this creates fertile ground for Catholic-Shi’a exchange. Catholicism also has a presence in Shi’a societies that predates the rise of either Islam or the West; Maronite Catholics in Lebanon, for example, Chaldean Catholics in Iraq, as well as Armenian and Chaldean Catholics in Iran.

Outreach to Shi’ites obviously doesn’t mean Catholics should go silent about anti-Christian persecution, or that the church should abandon contacts with Sunnis.

It does, however, suggest more systematic efforts to forge ties with Shi’ite leaders, activists and movements, and to resist the Western tendency to see all Shi’ites through the prism of radical jihadists. For example, Catholics could promote exchanges with Shi’ite institutions in Najaf, Iraq, long seen as a moderate alternative to Qom for leadership in the Shi’a world.

Of course, nothing any pope ever does, or doesn’t do, will be the fundamental force in deciding the future course of Islam, which is a decision that Muslims — Sunnis and Shiites alike — must decide for themselves.

Still, history seems to have created a special opportunity for Catholicism to forge ties with the Shi’a tradition, and this weekend gives Pope Francis his first real opportunity to exploit those possibilities.