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Pope Visits Azerbaijan - 2002-05-22

Pope John Paul II, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, is visiting Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country on the Caspian Sea.

While in Baku, the pope will meet with the country's small Catholic population - about 150 people in a nation of 7 million. The vast majority of Azeris are Muslim.

The Catholic presence in Azerbaijan is so small that there is no church residence. So although John Paul has been travelling many years, this trip marks the first time in his papacy that he will stay in a hotel. He is scheduled to meet with Azeri President Heydar Aliyev and on Thursday will celebrate mass at a sports arena.

The Azeri president invited the pope in the hope that he could help resolve a conflict with neighboring Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has been trying to regain control over the enclave since the collapse of the Soviet Union. About 30,000 people died during fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, and a cease-fire has been in effect since 1994.

The pope's visit is not expected to bring about any tangible results in the conflict. But it is being viewed as an effort to promote tolerance of other religions.

From Baku, the pontiff is scheduled to travel to Bulgaria, which also has a very small Catholic population.

In recent years, the pope has visited numerous countries in the former Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan, Armenia and Ukraine. But he has yet to visit Russia because of opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox leaders have expressed concern that Roman Catholics are trying to convert Russians.

During his papacy, Pope John Paul has visited almost 100 countries, far more than any of his predecessors. On Saturday the pope celebrated his 82nd birthday.