By any measure, Father Vladimír Fekete, the Catholic Church’s Apostolic Prefect of Azerbaijan, has a tough gig.
He’s the head of an infinitesimally small Catholic community, estimated at about 600 souls in an overwhelmingly Shia Muslim population of 10 million, and one that has to make its way in a society in which Christians are forever the “other” because of the national rivalry with neighboring Armenia.
A Salesian born in Slovakia, Fekete is also an outsider, so he may well feel under pressure to demonstrate loyalty to the country and its people.
Perhaps that background helps explain two moves by Fekete this week that otherwise seem puzzling.
First, Fekete appeared at a conference of a state-backed organization for Muslims in the Caucasus region on Tuesday and declared a 1992 massacre of Azerbaijani civilians at the hands of Armenians as “the greatest injustice against humanity.”
That, at least, was the phrase reported by official press agencies, and it hasn’t been challenged.
Granted, what’s known as the 1992 “Khojaly Massacre” was horrifying. According to reports, a large column of civilians from Khojaly, a key battleground city because it had the only airport in a region of Nagorno-Karabakh that has no land connection to Azerbaijan, was trying to flee the fighting along with a handful of Azerbaijani soldiers when they were fired upon by Armenian troops.
Scores of civilians were killed, and others perished later either attempting to escape or when Armenian forces, backed by the Commonwealth of Independent States, entered the city. Still others froze to death while wandering in nearby mountains. All told, the low-end estimate for lives lost is 160, the high-end in excess of 600.
Many Azerbaijanis refer to the incident as a “genocide,” which has obvious rhetorical significance in light of Armenia’s effort to have the world recognize what happened to its citizens at the hands of Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century as a genocide.
The formal name of the conference at which Fekete spoke on Tuesday was “Khojaly Genocide – bloody memory of the Azerbaijani people!!! Justice For Khojaly!” (Those exclamation points are in the original.)
Civilian massacres are always indefensible, but was this particular incident truly the “greatest injustice against humanity”? That may seem overblown, especially since Fekete apparently did not add that massacres and genocides are always evil, no matter who the victims are, including what the Armenians suffered a century ago.
Also this week, Fekete joined other religious leaders in Azerbaijan in signing a letter congratulating Mehriban Aliyeva, the wife of President Ilham Aliyev, on her appointment as the country’s First Vice President.
“Our people and state are proud of having Azerbaijan’s first lady Mehriban Aliyeva … among the few women who have managed to rise to the position of political leadership,” the religious leaders said.
“The public, political, and cultural mission you have fulfilled so far is a historical phenomenon,” they added.
What they failed to mention is that most observers see the appointment a way of deepening the stranglehold on oil-rich Azerbaijan by the Aliyev family, which has run the country for five decades.
The move comes after a series of constitutional “reforms” in September which also boosted the powers of the presidency, and after human rights watchdogs warned of growing restrictions on dissent and political opposition.
Given the accent in Catholic social teaching on basic human rights, it may seem odd that the Church’s representative in Azerbaijan would lend his name to a missive that comes off as craven police state propaganda.
There are three considerations, however, that may lend logic to these steps, and they have a far broader application than just Azerbaijan.
First, there are more than 200 million Christians today, roughly a tenth of the global Christian population, who live in areas where they’re a minority. Often those Christians face a double form of suspicion, in part for religion and in part due to the political tendency to identify all forms of Christianity with the West.
In such a setting, Christians leaders such as Fekete often feel compelled to come off as “more local than the locals.”
Second, we live in a time in which lots of people associate Islam with radical extremism and violence, and many Catholic leaders are doing everything they can to bolster moderates and teach the world that not every Muslim is a terrorist.
Fekete undoubtedly believed he was doing his part by attending the Khojaly memorial Tuesday, issuing a reminder that Muslims aren’t only perpetrators of violence but often its victims.
Third, Catholicism is a global faith of 1.2 billion people, and two-thirds of its population today lives outside the West. Often, they live in societies that are anything but thriving democracies, and we’ve got to accept that the rules for Church leaders in those places – what they can be expected to say and do, especially anything that might rock the political boat – necessarily have to be different.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be times when figures such as Fekete will be compelled to make a principled stand, but it also implies cutting them some slack about when and where to fight those battles.
In a nutshell, before we fault churchmen such as Fekete, we might consider walking a mile in their shoes. In truth, that’s probably the price of admission to life in a global Church.