Pope arrives in Azerbaijan, pleads for religious tolerance and end to violence
Arriving yesterday in Azerbaijan, an overwhelmingly Muslim country with only 120 Catholics, Pope John Paul II pleaded for religious tolerance around the globe and an end to violence in the name of God.
The Holy Father looked frail on the first day of his 25-hour visit to the Caucasus nation, but he carried a strong message: No religion can allow itself to be used as a "tragic excuse" for conflict, he said at an arrival ceremony in the capital Baku.
Later, meeting with religious and cultural leaders, the pope said Christians, Muslims and Jews all share an essential belief in God, and should together "proclaim to the world: enough of wars in the name of God. No more profanation of his holy name."
"I have come to Azerbaijan as an ambassador of peace. As long as I have breath within me I shall cry out: 'Peace in the name of God,'" he said.
When he arrived, his mobility problems were immediately evident: Instead of walking down a set of stairs, he was lowered to the tarmac on an open "papal lift" behind the aircraft -- the first time this was done for health reasons in 24 years of papal travel.
Then he mounted a wheeled podium and was rolled to a welcoming ceremony with 78-year-old President Geidar Aliev, who praised the pope as "a friend of all peoples and nations."
The pope pronounced only the first part of his Russian-language arrival speech in a weak and quavering voice that few people, if any, could understand. An aide read the rest of the text.
His speech called Azerbaijan a "gateway between East and West" and a fitting place to appeal for an end to conflicts that are bringing "unspeakable suffering" to innocent people.
Papal spokesman Navarro-Valls said the pope wanted to come to Azerbaijan for several reasons: to nurture a small Catholic community, to recognise a people who suffered under communism, to build more ecumenical bridges with an Orthodox community, and to respond to the hospitality of Muslim hosts. Navarro-Valls said the limitations posed by the pope's health problems were obvious, but did not represent an impediment to papal travel.
Azerbaijan's few catholics ready to greet Pope (CWN)
A papal "first": John Paul II to stay in hotel in Azerbaijan (VIS)
Papal Visit to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria (Vatican website)
23 May 2002