ICC NOTE: Azerbaijan has a very small Catholic population as well as a small percentage of Christians overall. Christians account for merely three percent of the population with the majority being adherents to Islam. Yet this weekend Pope Francis will visit both Azerbaijan and Georgia in an attempt to reconcile the differences between eastern and western values. The Caucasus region is in a unique location where east meets west or where the Christian world meets the Muslim world. Currently Azerbaijan is dealing with the passage of controversial amendments giving the president new overreaching powers risking many of the people’s freedoms. Despite the small Christian population in Azerbaijan, the pope is expected to received a large audience as well as plenty of coverage from state run media. Let us hope the pope raises the issue of religious freedom within the region as it could be threatened by the presidents recent power grab.
9/27/2016 Azerbaijan (The Tablet) – The Pope’s three-day visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan this weekend marks the latest papal initiative to foster dialogue and understanding in the world’s troubled regions. With just under 300 Catholics, a Muslim population of more than 90 per cent and a president accused of appalling human rights abuses, Azerbaijan is not an obvious location for a papal visit.
But for Pope Francis, who visits the country on Sunday, it is part of his plan to bring peace and reconciliation to the “east-meets-west” Caucasus region, a part of the world riddled with military conflicts yet given little attention by western media. Azerbaijan has been in a long-running battle with Armenia, a country the Pope went to in June: since the 1990s the dispute between the two has centred on the Nagorno-Karabakh region with 75 soldiers killed in April.
Fr Stefan Kormancik, a Salesian from Slovakia who is one of six priests serving in the country, explained that Francis’ trip was a “very important step for reconciliation” and would help re-balance perceptions that he might be siding with Armenia given he had visited there first.
Despite the tiny number of Catholics in the country, the Pope’s one-day visit to the Azerbaijan capital of Baku is expected to get wall-to-wall coverage by state-run television outlets with thousands turning out to see him. Kormancik explained that many in the Muslim country, which has a secular constitution, revere the Pope as a “holy man”.
Francis’ visit to Azerbaijan was twinned with a trip to Georgia, a country still scarred by a war with Russia in 2008 over the disputed South Ossetia region.