Pope Francis traveled to Azerbaijan on Sunday for a 10-hour visit aimed at encouraging the country's inter-religious harmony while likely overlooking criticism of a referendum that extends the president's term and powers.
Francis' first stop was to celebrate Mass for Azerbaijan's tiny Catholic community. The Caucasus nation — the second-largest Shi'ite Muslim country after Iran — has fewer than 300 Azeri Catholics. Several thousand foreigners make up the rest of its Catholic community, and Azeri Jews, Zoroastrians and other minorities round out Azerbaijan's religious mix.
"Some may think that the pope wastes so much time: travelling so many kilometers to visit a small community,'' Francis told more than 400 people in the church and another 450 who followed the Mass outside in the courtyard. But he said he was merely doing as God did in delivering Jesus among the Jews of Jerusalem. "In this, the pope imitates the Holy Spirit. He also descended from heaven to a small community.''
"Have courage! Go on, without fear! Go ahead!''
Francis was to meet with the region's Muslim sheik and representatives of all the main faiths as well as President Ilham Aliyev before heading back to Rome after a weekend Caucasus visit that first took him to Georgia.
Francis has denounced the use of violence in God's name and has stressed the need for greater interfaith dialogue. In many ways, the Vatican sees Azerbaijan as a model of religious tolerance given the interfaith harmony that characterizes relations among its Muslims, Christians and Jews.
The Catholic Church where Francis celebrated Mass, for example, was built with the financial help of Muslims and Jews, according to the Salesian priests who preside there. The Azeri government donated a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital of Baku after St. John Paul II visited in 2002, but it took the help of non-Christians to get the structure built.
"I cannot contain my boundless joy,'' parishioner Eva Agalarova, 61, said of Francis' visit. "It is both joy and happiness that the faith gives me.''
The half-dozen Salesian priests who minister to Azerbaijani Catholics gave Francis a hand-woven carpet depicting both the church and the Maiden's Tower, a 12th-century bastion in Baku's walled Old City that is probably Azerbaijan's most recognizable structure. Azerbaijan is famed for its magnificent carpets.
Its politics, however, are another story.
Last week, Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission said more than 80 percent of voters in the former Soviet republic backed a constitutional amendment extending the presidential term from five to seven years. Other provisions granted the president the right to dissolve parliament, create new vice presidential jobs and cancel age limits.
Aliyev's opponents, as well as human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Freedom House, said the moves cement a dynastic rule in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation.
The Azerbaijani government has rejected the criticism, saying the constitutional amendments aimed to cut the red tape and speed up economic reforms.
It wasn't known if Francis would press Aliyev on the issue or broader criticisms of alleged rights abuses and suppression of dissent. The Catholic Church enjoys good relations with the government.
Francis' visit to Azerbaijan comes after a June visit to neighboring Armenia, where he appealed for peace between two former Soviet republics over Nagorno-Karabakh. The region is officially part of Azerbaijan, but since a separatist war ended in 1994, it has been under the control of forces that claim to be local ethnic Armenians but that Azerbaijan claims include the Armenian military.
Zemfira Mamedova, 70, said a hoped-for call for a peaceful resolution was the key expectation of the pope's visit.
``The pope already was in Yerevan several months ago,'' Mamedova said. ``Now we are expecting his call for peace and for the return of our land in Karabakh. This is our most main expectation.''
Local Azeri media hasn't given much attention to the visit, but Baku's Muslim residents still welcomed Francis' presence.
``Islam is a tolerant religion and it accepts all faiths,'' a Muslim woman, Aygun Mikayilova, said. ``I will welcome the pope's visit if he is bringing a message of peace, calm and tolerance.''
Aliyev, in office since succeeding his father in 2003, has firmly allied the Shiite Muslim nation with the West, helping secure its energy and security interests and offset Russia's influence in the strategic Caspian region.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield