BAKU, Azerbaijan—At a longtime gateway between West and East, Pope Francis called for peaceful resolution of conflict and the coexistence among Muslims, Jews and Christians in Azerbaijan, a country with a Shi’a Islam majority.
“The world, unfortunately, is experiencing the tragedy of many conflicts fueled by intolerance, which in turn is fomented by violent ideologies and by the effective denial of the rights of the weakest,” Francis said in his meeting with the local authorities, after celebrating morning Mass with the country’s small Catholic community.
As expected, the pontiff also made a veiled reference to a long standing conflict the country has with neighboring Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, saying that as harmony among various sectors is promoted within the country’s borders, it’s also important to do so among states.
“In this way, peoples will be spared grave suffering and painful wounds, which are difficult to heal,” Francis said.
Francis’s visit to Azerbaijan concludes his weekend trip, which began on Friday with a two-night stop in Georgia. The foray ends his so called “Caucasus tour” which began last June with a visit to Armenia. All three are former Soviet nations.
Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, but since the end of a 1994 separatist war, it’s been under control of forces that claim to be of Armenian ethnicity, but which Azerbaijan claims include the Armenian army.
“I am confident that, with the help of God, and the good will of those involved, the Caucasus will be a place where, through dialogue and negotiation, disputes and differences will be resolved and overcome,” Francis said.
Closing his remarks, the pontiff underlined the “cordial relations enjoyed by the Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox and Jewish communities.”
The country’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim (96 percent), with 63 following Shiite Islam and 33 percent Sunni. With nine million inhabitants, Azerbaijan is the second largest Shiite country, after Iran.
Sunday marked the first time Pope Francis has visited a majority Shiite nation.
According to Vatican statistics, the Catholic Church counts just 300 to 500 faithful. The Armenian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox and the Jewish community have slightly larger populations.
Yet if the composition of the Mass’s chorus is any indication, Azerbaijan might follow the trend of many Middle Eastern countries, where the Catholic population swells with an increasing Filipino immigration. This Asian country is often labeled “the new Ireland,” as waves of Filipino immigrants and missionaries carry the Catholic faith with them around the world.
The Azeri constitution ensures freedom of worship, including choosing a religion or practicing none. However, converting from Islam in this country, as in most Muslim majority nations, leads to ostracism within one’s family. In addition, a 1996 law states that even though foreigners have freedom of conscience, they’re denied the right to “carry out religious propaganda,” such as preaching, under threat of fines or deportation.
Later in the day, Francis was scheduled to meet with the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus region, Allahshukur Pashazadeh, one of the most influential Muslims in the world. The two will take part in an interfaith encounter with Baku’s Orthodox bishop and with the president of the local Jewish community.
Before meeting with the political class, the pope began his visit celebrating Mass in St Mary’s Catholic Church, the only Catholic house of prayer in the country, run by the Salesian order. In the first row of pews, behind a group of faithful in wheelchairs, were seven Missionaries of Charity sisters, the order founded by St. Teresa of Kolkata.
The small church was full, and hundreds of chairs were added on its adjoining patio, to accommodate what Francis described as a “precious little flock.”
In his homily, the pontiff spoke of faith and service, saying that the first is not “magic” nor a “a talent” given once and for all, nor a “super-power for solving life’s problems,” but a gift from God that is supposed to be nurtured.
“A faith useful for satisfying our needs would be a selfish one, centered entirely on ourselves,” he said.
Yet faith, Francis continued, only bares fruits “if we play our part,” meaning service, which he defined as “a way of life” that’s interwoven with faith.
He also honored the many who were killed during years of religious persecution, allegedly during the decades of Soviet regime-though he didn’t specify: “Here the faith, after the years of persecution, has accomplished wonders. I wish to recall the many courageous Christians who trusted in the Lord and were faithful in the face of adversity,” he said.
He then added that he was sure “that when you look to the example of those who have gone before you in faith, you will not let your hearts become lukewarm.”
Several languages were used during the celebration, including Azeri and Russian, with Pope Francis speaking in English and Italian.
After ending the celebration, Father Vladimir Fekete greeted Francis in the name of the “small community in the peripheries of the Catholic Church.” He said that with the pope’s visit, Azerbaijan became the center of Christianity, because “Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia,” meaning, the Church is there where Peter is.
“The pope understands well words such as discrimination, marginalization and poverty,” Fekete said. “At the same time, you, Holy Father, are working on showing the world how it’s possible to change these words and these realities into new words and realities: mercy, goodness, tolerance and all the other synonyms of charity.”
The Catholic community in Azerbaijan doesn’t even reach 1,000, leading many to wonder why Pope Francis decided to visit this country with an overwhelming Muslim majority.
Closing the morning Mass he celebrated in the lone Catholic church in Azerbaijan, he posed the question himself: “Some might think, ‘Why does the pope waste so much time, traveling so many miles to visit a small community?'” he asked.
“The pope in this imitates the Holy Spirit,” he said. “He too came down from the sky for a small community of the periphery enclosed in the cenacle,” referring to the Biblical scene of apostles after the death of Jesus huddled in a small upper room.
That community too, he added, was afraid, felt unworthy, ignored and even persecuted. The Holy Spirit, he said, came down to give them courage and strength to move on, proclaiming the name of Jesus.
“The pope loses time as the Holy Spirit did,” he said, reminding those gathered that only two things are necessary: “The Mother [pointing towards an image of the Virgin Mary] and charity.”