2 Cultures Await Pope on Azerbaijan-Bulgaria Trip

One Country Heavily Muslim; the Other, Orthodox

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 7, 2002 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II´s visit to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria next month will have two very different stages, not only for religious but also for cultural and linguistic reasons.

Last Wednesday, Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls confirmed that the Pope will visit Azerbaijan and Bulgaria from May 22-25. It will be the 96th international trip of his 23-year pontificate.

Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that gained independence in 1991, lies between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea. More than 90% of its 7.7 million inhabitants are Muslims. The country has a significant minority of Russian Orthodox and Armenian Christians.

Following nine years of an undeclared war with Armenia, Azerbaijan in 1998 came to an agreement regarding the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. The region, inhabited primarily by Armenians, was granted autonomy.

There had been a Catholic parish in Baku since the 1917 Communist Revolution, but the church was destroyed in the 1950s.

Since 1998, Azerbaijan had been entrusted to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Last Oct. 11, a «sui iuris» (in its own right) mission was created in Baku, the capital, which was entrusted to the Salesians.

The second stage of the papal trip is Bulgaria, a land where Eastern Slav Christianity first took root. It was from this land that the monks and blood brothers Cyril and Methodius left in the ninth century to preach Christianity in Moravia, the Balkans and Russia.

Cyril and Methodius and their disciples translated the liturgy and the sacred Scriptures from ancient Bulgarian, the language that would later become the basis of ecclesiastical Slovak.

The two are considered saints both by Orthodoxy and Catholicism. St. Cyril´s remains are buried in St. Clement´s Basilica in Rome. On the saint´s 11th centenary, the Pope recalled his missionary work with the 1985 encyclical «Slavorum Apostoli.»

On Dec. 31, 1980, the Pope proclaimed the two canonized brothers co-patrons of Europe.

The process of Bulgarian democratization began after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. A new constitution was approved in 1991 and, in 1996, primary elections were introduced.

Bulgaria has a population of just under 8 million, 83.5% of whom are Orthodox, 13% Muslim, 1.7% Catholic and 0.8% Jewish.

Catholics of the Latin rite are divided into two dioceses: Sofia-Plovdiv and Ruse-Nikopol, while Catholics of the Byzantine-Slavic rite have an exarchy in Sofia. Bishop Hristo Projkov, president of the episcopal conference, is the apostolic exarch.

In 1998, John Paul II canonized Catholic Bishop Evgenij Bosilkov, who was sentenced to death by the Communist regime in 1952.

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