Pope visits Azerbaijan on Caucasus peace tour
Pope Francis on Sunday arrived in mainly Muslim Azerbaijan on the last leg of his peace tour of the volatile ex-Soviet Caucasus region, just months after visiting arch-foe Armenia.
The pontiff held a mass for the country’s tiny Catholic community in the capital Baku ahead of a scheduled meeting with President Ilham Aliyev.
The meeting comes just days after strongman Aliyev — who is accused of ruthlessly stamping out dissent in the energy-rich country — won a referendum on constitutional changes seen as consolidating his family’s grip on power.
“You are a little flock precious in God’s eyes,” the Pope said in his homily to the country’s few hundred Catholics.
“The entire Church, which has for you a special sympathy, looks at you and encourages you.”
While in the majority Shiite Muslim country, the Pope is expected to reiterate the call he made three months ago in neighbouring Armenia for a peaceful resolution to the long-simmering conflict over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh.
Officially part of Azerbaijan, the territory has been under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists since 1994 when a war between the two countries ended in a ceasefire but no formal peace accord.
Since then there have been sporadic outbursts of violence and a sharp spike in April saw several days of major clashes leave 110 people dead before a fragile Russian-brokered truce halted the fighting.
Azerbaijan’s Catholic community only counts some 570 faithful, according to the Vatican, with seven priests serving in the Caspian Sea country’s sole Catholic parish.
Francis arrived in Baku from neighbouring Georgia, one of the world’s oldest Christian nations, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 over two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Moscow-backed territories are under what Georgia insists is a de facto Russian occupation.
Francis spoke of the need for refugees to return to their homes and called for respect for national sovereignty, but he seemed to dodge potential Russian ire by avoiding the word “occupation”.
The pontiff has been on drive to reach out to Orthodox communities around the world and received a warm welcome from Georgia’s pro-Western leaders and the head of the country’s Orthodox Church.
But a centuries-old doctrinal dispute saw Georgian Orthodox officials skip an open-air mass by Francis in Tbilisi and only several thousand worshippers — mainly from the small Catholic community — attended.