02 October 2016
Francis praises Azerbaijan’s religious tolerance and calls on faiths to be 'agents of peace'
Pope hold mass for 'little flock' of 300 Catholics in Muslim majority country
Pope Francis used his visit to Azerbaijan on Sunday to praise the country’s religious multiculturalism, while steering clear of criticising the human rights abuses of which its president is accused.
During his one-day trip to the oil-rich, Muslim majority state, the Pope repeatedly held up its openness to different cultures and religions while urging the government to continue on this path of “co-operation.”
However Francis chose not to publicly talk about the serious abuses which the President Ilham Aliyev, has been accused of instead focussing on the positives of the 25-year-old country. This is likely to disappoint critics of Aliyev’s regime who are particularly unhappy that the president has held a referendum on constitutional reform which would lengthen his term of office.
The Pope arrived in Baku this morning and had a private meeting with the president in his palace in Baku. Afterwards, he delivered a speech at “Heydar Aliyev” centre he contrasted Azerbaijan’s open approach to other faiths with parts of the world which were becoming “fomented” by violent ideologies.
Francis’ trip to Azerbaijan was the last leg in his tour of the Caucasus region, a part of the world which stands on the gateway between east and west. It is a region riddled with conflicts, but is also an important frontier of inter-religious co-operation and for helping the Pope to improve relations with the Orthodox Church.
Azerbaijan has a tiny number of Catholics and Francis this morning said Mass for 300 of them using his homily to praise them as a “little flock that is so precious in God’s eyes.” He told them to have “courage” and “go ahead” in their mission.
Since 2002, the Church has been recognised by the state, and exists peacefully alongside Jews, Orthodox christians and Muslims, the majority of which are Shia. They gave a warm welcome to Francis on Sunday, with a local priest explaining that many of them revered him as a “holy man”
During his visit the Pope went to the “Heydar Aliyev” mosque for an inter-faith gathering and to meet with one of Islam’s most influential figures, the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus, Allahshukur Pashazadeh.
In his speech in the mosque, Francis explained how the Catholic Church was firmly committed to dialogue with other faiths so as to promote common spiritual and moral values - and it is something which he said was in continuity with the Second Vatican Council’s document on the topic, Nostra Aetate.
“This is not an accommodating ‘facile syncretism’, nor a ‘diplomatic openness which says yes to everything in order to avoid problems.’ But rather a path of dialogue with others and a path of prayer for all,” the Pope said. “These are our means ‘of turning spears into pruning hooks’ to give rise to love where there is hatred, and forgiveness where there is offence, of never growing weary of imploring and tracing the ways of peace.”
He also pleaded for an end to religious violence, for faiths instead to become agents for peace, and that humanity needs religion as a moral compass.
“In this night of conflict that we are currently enduring, may religions be a dawn of peace, seeds of rebirth amid the devastation of death, echoes of dialogue resounding unceasingly, paths to encounter and reconciliation reaching even those places where official mediation efforts seem not to have borne fruit,” the Pope said.
Before heading to the airport for the plane to take him back to Rome, Francis stressed he had come to the Caucasus as a “pilgrim of pilgrim of peace” and that the wisdom, culture and faith of the peoples were a “resource for the future of the region and especially for European culture.”
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