Pope praises religious freedom in Azerbaijan
Pope Francis praised Azerbaijan on Sunday as a model for a world divided by violent extremism, sidestepping criticism of the government for the sake of encouraging religious tolerance in an often volatile region where Catholics are a minority.
Francis avoided direct mention of criticism in the West over allegations of human-rights abuses in Azerbaijan and a recent government referendum that extends the president's term and gives him new powers.
The pope addressed a gathering of Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox leaders in Azerbaijan's main mosque before heading back to Rome after a weekend Caucasus visit that first took him to Georgia.
"From this highly symbolic place, a heartfelt cry rises up once again: No more violence in the name of God!" Francis said. "May his most holy name be adored, not profaned or bartered as a commodity through forms of hatred and human opposition."
The pope spent his 10 hours in the Azeri capital of Baku celebrating one of the world's smallest Catholic communities and the good relations it enjoys with Azerbaijan's Shiite Muslim majority and its Jewish, Orthodox and other religious minorities. There are only about 300 Azeri Catholics in Azerbaijan, though the community also includes several thousand foreigners.
"These good relations assume great significance for peaceful coexistence and for peace in the world," Francis told President Ilham Aliyev and government officials. "They demonstrate that among followers of different religious confessions, cordial relations, respect and cooperation for the common good are possible."
As a case in point, Francis celebrated Mass in Baku's new Catholic Church, which 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 after St John Paul II visited in 2002, but it took the help of non-Christians to get the structure built.
"Have courage! Go on, without fear! Go ahead!" Francis urged the 400 Catholic faithful in the church and another 450 seated outside in the courtyard.