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Pope John Paul II Celebrates Mass in Baku, Azerbaijan - 2002-05-23

Pope John Paul II has said mass in Baku, capital of the Caspian Sea country, Azerbaijan. The pope blessed the country's small Catholic population.

During the mass on Thursday, the pope praised the country's small Catholic population of 120 people for surviving Communist repression.

Almost all of Azerbaijan's 7 million residents are Muslim, and this is one of the smallest Catholic parishes the pope has ever visited. Most members of the parish sat in the front row during the service, some waving signs saying, "We love you."

The Roman Catholic church leader also lauded the Orthodox church for resisting attempts by Soviet authorities to subdue believers.

During the service, which was held in a sports arena, security officials pulled a man away 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 ailing pontiff. The 82-year-old pope was wheeled to the podium on a movable platform. He started the service, then later asked an aide to complete the mass, something he has done often in recent months.

But the pope, who is suffering from Parkinson's disease as well as hip and knee problems, has made it clear that he does not wish to retire.

From Azerbaijan the pope later travels to Bulgaria, which also has a small Catholic population. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Pope John Paul has visited many former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia. He also has visited other formerly Communist countries, including his homeland, Poland.

But so far he has not been able to travel to Russia, because of a disagreement with the Russian Orthodox Church. Officials from the Russian Orthodox Church have expressed concern that the Roman Catholic Church is trying to convert Orthodox believers.