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Pontiff Travels to Bulgaria, Concludes Visit to Azerbaijan - 2002-05-23

Pope John Paul is on his way to Bulgaria after a brief visit to Azerbaijan. Before leaving, the pope celebrated mass for Azerbaijan's small Catholic population.

There are few Catholics in Azerbaijan. The country has a population of seven million people, but almost all of them are Muslims. There are believed to be about 120 Catholics. During mass on Thursday, the pope praised the country's Catholics for surviving years of Communist repression.

The pontiff also lauded the Orthodox Church for resisting attempts by Soviet authorities to silence believers.

During the service, security officials pulled away a man on crutches who was trying to approach the altar where the pope was standing. It was not clear who the man was, and the mass continued after the interruption.

The trip appeared to tire the pope. The 82-year-old pontiff was wheeled to the podium on a movable platform. After beginning the service, he later asked an aide to complete it, something he has often done in recent months.

But the pope, who suffers from the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, as well as hip and knee problems, has made it clear that he does not plan to retire.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Pope John Paul has visited many former Soviet republics including Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia. He has also visited formerly Communist countries, such as his native Poland.

While in Bulgaria, the pope will meet with the country's small Catholic population, which makes up about one percent of the country. The vast majority of people in Bulgaria are Orthodox.

Despite his extensive travels, the pope has yet to visit Russia because of opposition from the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, who have expressed concern that the Catholic Church is trying to convert Orthodox believers.