BAKU, Azerbaijan, Oct 2: Pope Francis traveled to Azerbaijan on Sunday for a 10-hour visit aimed at encouraging the country’s inter-religious harmony while likely overlooking criticism of a referendum that extends the president’s term and powers. Francis’ first stop was to celebrate Mass for Azerbaijan’s tiny Catholic community. The Caucasus tion — the second-largest Shiite Muslim country after Iran — has fewer than 300 Azeri Catholics. Several thousand foreigners make up the rest of its Catholic community, and Azeri Jews, Zoroastrians and other minorities round out Azerbaijan’s religious mix.
“Some may think that the pope wastes so much time: travelling so many kilometers to visit a small community,” Francis told more than 400 people in the church and another 450 who followed the Mass outside in the courtyard. But he said he was merely doing as God did in delivering Jesus among the Jews of Jerusalem. “In this, the pope imitates the Holy Spirit. He also descended from heaven to a small community.” “Have courage! Go on, without fear! Go ahead!”
Francis was to meet with the region’s Muslim sheik and representatives of all the main faiths as well as President Ilham Aliyev before heading back to Rome after a weekend Caucasus visit that first took him to Georgia.
Francis has denounced the use of violence in God’s me and has stressed the need for greater interfaith dialogue. In many ways, the Vatican sees Azerbaijan as a model of religious tolerance given the interfaith harmony that characterizes relations among its Muslims, Christians and Jews.
The Catholic Church where Francis celebrated Mass, for example, was built with the fincial help of Muslims and Jews, according to the Salesian priests who preside there. The Azeri government doted a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital of Baku after St. John Paul II visited in 2002, but it took the help of non-Christians to get the structure built. (AP)