John Paul II Bids Azerbaijan Farewell

Pays Tribute to Communist-Era Heroism of Catholics and Orthodox

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BAKU, Azerbaijan, MAY 23, 2002 ( Members of one of the smallest Catholic communities in the world participated in a Mass today with their Pope.

John Paul II´s meeting with the fewer than 200 Azeri Catholics was turned into a homage to the heroism of men and women who died for the faith during the Communist persecution.

For decades, Catholics in the country were without priests. A parish priest, Father Stefan Demurov of Baku, was deported to Siberia during the Stalin era, and the city´s Catholic church was destroyed by the regime in the 1930s.

In its place, the Bolsheviks built a recreation center for the KGB; the facility still exists. During the Mass, the Holy Father blessed the first stone of a new Catholic church, which will be built on land donated by Azeri President Geidar Aliev.

During the homily, delivered in Russian and read in large part by a priest, the Pontiff said the «universal Church pays tribute to all those who succeeded in remaining faithful to their baptismal commitments.»

«I am thinking in particular of those who live permanently in this country and who experienced the tragedy of Marxist persecution, and bore the consequences of their faithful attachment to Christ,» the Pope added.

«Brothers and sisters, you saw your religion mocked as mere superstition, as an attempt to escape the responsibilities of engagement in history,» he continued. «For this reason you were regarded as second-class citizens and were humiliated and marginalized in many ways.»

Along with Catholics, some 3,000 people, the majority Muslims, attended the Mass celebrated in the Sports Palace. Also present were Orthodox Christians, who gave John Paul II a cordial welcome. The Holy Father said to them: «I wish to repeat once again, honor also to you, the holy Orthodox Church; you opened your doors to the Catholic faithful, who were without fold or shepherd. May the Lord reward your generosity.»

There were also Catholics from neighboring countries attending the Mass, including Georgia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Among the concelebrants were bishops from Kazakhstan and Iran. Absent were Armenian Christians, amid the ongoing tensions with Azerbaijan.

«It seems to me, at this moment, that Bernini´s colonnade, those arms stretching out from the Basilica of St. Peter to embrace the world, reaches out to you too, the little Catholic community of Azerbaijan, close to the bosom of Christ and the Church,» the Holy Father continued.

«In this embrace, the heart of the whole Church beats with affection and love for you,» he added. «With the Church, and in her, beats the heart of the Pope, who has come here to tell you that he loves you and has never forgotten you.»

The entire small Catholic community mobilized to prepare the celebration. The German ambassador brought the crucifix; the Polish, the candles; the French consul led the Offertory procession. The presbytery and the background of the altar were adorned with beautiful tapestries, the pride of the local culture, brought expressly from the National Museum.

At the end of the Mass, a group of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh (Azeri territory inhabited primarily by Armenians) met with the Pope in representation of the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the same fate. The Holy Father gave them a $100,000 donation to cover their urgent needs.

John Paul II then dined in an area of public housing, where the Salesians have their house which constitutes the heart of the Catholic community in Baku.

In the Salesian residence, the Pope met with the three leaders of the most important religious communities in Azerbaijan: Allahshukur Pasha-Zade, the sheik of the Caucasus Muslims; Semyon Ikhiidov, president of the Jewish community; and Aleksander Iscein, Orthodox eparch of Baku, dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate.

Eparch Iscein is esteemed by the local Catholic community, with whom it has good relations. The Pope donated a $20,000 contribution to help pay the $1 million ransom demanded by the kidnappers of an Orthodox priest in Chechnya.

The Pope´s roughly 24-hour trip to Azerbaijan ended with a simple farewell in the capital´s airport.

During his visit, the Holy Father had trouble articulating his speeches; his mental lucidity, however, remained unimpaired.

Security forces detained a man who rushed with his crutches toward the altar where the Pope was celebrating Mass. John Paul II blessed him and asked that he be released and allowed to meet with the Pope at the end.

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