BAKU, MAY 22, 2002 (ZENIT.org–Avvenire).-The current visit of the Pope is due in part to the efforts of Bishop Aleksander, head of the Caspian Orthodox Church in the regions neighboring Russian Caucasus and Azerbaijan.
The Caspian Orthodox Church is not autonomous; it depends on the Moscow Patriarchate. However, Bishop Aleksander, about 50, with a reddish beard and resounding voice, does not seem to share the Moscow hierarchy´s position in regard to papal trips.
Not only has the bishop not opposed the Pope´s visit to Baku, but he has done everything possible to promote it, cooperating actively with the Catholic community and the State apparatus.
The faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church in Azerbaijan constitute 12 % of the population, a traditionally Muslim country of almost 8 million inhabitants. Hence, it cannot be considered “canonical territory.”
In the following interview, the Bishop comments on John Paul II´s visit to his country.
–Q: Excellency, what is the significance of the Pope´s visit to Baku?
–Bishop Aleksander: It is a very important visit, not only for Azerbaijan but for the whole Caucasus, because it witnesses to this region´s desire to reinforce its ties with Europe, overcoming internal conflicts. The Roman Pope is a messenger of peace and, as such, we give him a warm welcome.
–Q: What are relations like between Orthodox and Catholics in Azerbaijan?
–Bishop Aleksander: I would say they are good, as should be the case for brothers in faith in Christ. Both Catholics and ourselves have suffered a lot in the years of the Communist regime, and in 1946 when the Orthodox Churches were reopened, we welcomed the faithful of Rome who did not have a place where they could celebrate Mass. And because of this, we do not have difficulties in being together today.
–Q: Will you meet with John Paul II?
–Bishop Aleksander: I think so. I will participate in religious events scheduled in the course of his visit. Moreover, I have been invited to the meeting with the Roman Pontiff, together with heads of the Muslim and Jewish communities. I cannot miss it.
–Q: Is this your own autonomous decision or did you discuss it with your superiors?
–Bishop Aleksander: It is my decision but, obviously, I consulted Moscow.
–Q: Did you speak personally with Patriarch Alexis II?
–Bishop Aleksander: Yes, and I can tell you that he did not express opposition.
–Q: Then why does the Patriarch of Moscow continue to oppose a visit to Russia by the Pope?
–Bishop Aleksander: You must ask him that, not me.