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Pope Leaves Wednesday for Azerbaijan, Bulgaria - 2002-05-21


Pope John Paul II will leave Wednesday on the 96th foreign trip of his long papacy. The pope will visit Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, despite continuing concerns about his health.

The pope's five-day trip will take him first to Azerbaijan, an oil-rich Muslim country with a population of seven-million but only 120 Catholics. The pope will be in the Azeri capital, Baku, for just 24 hours.

Azerbaijan has been locked in a conflict over the mainly ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inside Azerbaijan's borders. When the pope visited Armenia last September, Azeris were outraged.

So, Pope John Paul's visit is aimed at mending relations with Baku. Azeri President Geidar Aliyev invited the pope to visit his country in the hope that the Vatican will assist in resolving the conflict, in which 30,000 people have been killed.

Azerbaijan has only one Catholic parish and two priests. There is no Vatican embassy and the pope will be staying for the first time in a hotel.

Pope John Paul has visited a number of Muslim countries in the past, and he has recently intensified efforts for harmony with other religions.

The second leg of the pope's trip will take him to the mostly Orthodox Christian Bulgaria. Catholics there represent just one percent of the population, and the pope will seek to strengthen relations with Orthodox Christians.

Bulgaria's authorities hope the visit will put an end to suspicions that the country's secret services were involved in a 1981 assassination attempt on the pope. Three Bulgarians suspected of complicity with Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca were acquitted for lack of evidence.

Pope John Paul has appeared tired and increasingly weak in recent weeks, and this trip will be a further test of his stamina. But the pope, who turned 82 last week, has made clear he has no intention of retiring.

Last week, two cardinals said the pope could decide to step down if his health deteriorated to the point he felt he could no longer continue to lead the world's Roman Catholics. But last Sunday, the pope asked the faithful for prayers to help him continue in his mission.

Despite his frail health, the pope shows no signs of wanting to give up his foreign travels. The most traveled pope in history has a number of other trips planned for this year. He is scheduled to visit Canada, Mexico, and Guatemala in July, and his native Poland in August. He may also travel to Croatia in September.

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