VATICAN CITY, FEB. 27, 2005 ( President Ulham Aliev of Azerbaijan committed himself to promote peace and religious freedom in the Caucasus, when he visited the Holy See over the weekend.

Aliev, who was received Saturday by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, began the meeting by asking the prelate to transmit to the hospitalized John Paul II "his homage and that of the Azerbaijani people." He also said he remembered well the Holy Father's visit to Baku on May 22-23, 2002.

A statement issued by Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro Valls reported that "in the course of the talks, relations between the Holy See and Azerbaijan were reviewed, as well as the existing problems in the Caucasus, with the common commitment to favor the material and spiritual progress of that region, and, in particular, the necessary religious freedom and dialogue between the different components of society."

Also present at the meeting were Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan's foreign minister, and Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, Vatican secretary for relations with states.

The Republic of Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union. It has 7.8 million inhabitants, most of whom are Muslims, although there are important minorities of Russian and Armenian Orthodox.

Despite the 1994 cease-fire, Azerbaijan has yet to resolve its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a largely Armenian enclave. Azerbaijan has lost 16% of its territory and, as a result of the conflict, must support 800,000 refugees and internally displaced people.

The Catholic community in Azerbaijan virtually disappeared during Stalin's persecutions. There are fewer than 1,000 Catholics in the country.

Last Nov. 18, John Paul II received a delegation of Muslim, Orthodox and Jewish representatives of Azerbaijan, who went to Rome to thank him for his 2002 visit.

During the meeting, the Pope and all the representatives agreed that no one has the right to use religion as an instrument of intolerance or violence.