That is how many of the faithful a priest found when he arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1997.
Nestled between Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan borders the Caspian Sea. It has 7.7 million inhabitants, mostly Muslim. About 10% belong to the Orthodox Church, and 2% to the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Since the time of the Communist revolution, Baku had a Catholic parish. But its church was destroyed in the 1950s. Father Stefan Demurov, the last Catholic priest, is believed to have died in a Siberian concentration camp.
In 1997, Polish priest Father Jersey Pilus, a member of the Neo-Catechumenal Way, arrived in Baku, where he found about 30 Catholics.
With the help of seminarians, who have come, alternately, from Warsaw, London and Copenhagen, Father Pilus has prepared some 20 catechumens. Today, Catholics there include foreign diplomats, oil company employees and technicians.
John Paul II created the Catholic Mission of Baku, entrusting it to the Salesians. Its current superior, Slovak Father Joseph Daniel Pravda, 50, is assisted by a lay colleague. Father Pravda recently spoke with the international agency Fides at the end of an “ad limina” visit to see the Pope.
–Q: Your mission has only a few dozen Catholics, but 20 catechumens are preparing for baptism. What makes them embrace the faith?
–Father Pravda: In this region, formerly part of the Soviet Union, it is mainly intellectuals, doctors, teachers and scientists who are attracted to the Church, but there are also believers among the ordinary people. All of them are obviously in search of the meaning of life.
We find that many have already joined Oriental sects or movements; however, they realize that only Christ is the answer to their aspirations. This is the difficulty of our task: to give them the right answers.
–Q: Was there a change with the fall of the Berlin Wall?
–Father Pravda: There were many changes, mostly for the worst. Of course, now there is freedom to believe, to witness to Christ; but when Communism pulled out, it left [in its wake] poverty, delinquency, corruption and crime. Many still look to the past with nostalgia. They are hungry for food, but not necessarily spiritual food. In those days there was some food and much security.
–Q: What is the current economic situation?
–Father Pravda: Over the last four years, corruption has gone haywire. Even at the government level, there is a network of corruption that concentrates economic power in the hands of a few.
–Q: Is Muslim fundamentalism a problem here?
–Father Pravda: Thankfully, in our mission, we are not aware of this. However, this threat is feared by both the people and the government, which is anxious to keep it away by all possible means.
Perhaps a few clandestine groups of Muslim fundamentalists exist, but they have little influence. The Azerbaijanis took steps to rid the country of all fundamentalists — Muslim and pseudo-Christian sects — to avoid social tension.
–Q: What major challenges have you identified?
–Father Pravda: The principal one is to bring Christ to the people. There is spiritual poverty, a crisis. Communism removed people´s conscience and desire for the common good. The greatest gift we Christians can give them is to help them re-form their conscience. Communism eliminated personality, culture, the very nature of the people.
People often say to me: “A person without faith is a bad person. A person without faith has no morals or ideals; he is only interested in satisfying himself.”
The city is living a serious economic crisis. A million refugees have come from Nagorno-Karabakh [a region disputed over by Azerbaijan and Armenia] in search of food and work; 200,000 are in Baku.
Ordinary people have little to eat, while local authorities drive around in new cars and spend money on new buildings. Many children don´t go to school because they have no coats or shoes to wear. Fortunately, the sense of family is still strong among ordinary people, who share the little they have and are ready to lend a hand.
–Q: Is the mission recognized as a Church?
–Father Pravda: We are registered as a Catholic community, not as a Church, but then, I think that not even the Orthodox Church here, which has a far larger community, is registered as such. Their parishes are registered as bodies. We have a church building that includes a chapel for liturgy and a few rooms for social activities. The Salesian center, where we teach catechism and assist the poor, is in the same building.
However, first of all, we are witnesses to the faith. As foreigners, we are not allowed to engage in missionary work, although a law on freedom of belief does exist. Azerbaijan considers itself a democratic, secular state, but it has introduced a law that restricts the activity of foreign missionaries. People are free to come to us, but we may not go to them. There is also a certain social pressure, as many [believe] that Catholic converts betray the national culture.