A week before Pope Francis was to visit the Church of the Immaculate Conception, several dozen Catholics gathered for Mass.
“The pope’s visit is a big event for the Catholics in Azerbaijan, and we are excited to welcome him; it’s a blessing that we will see him with our eyes and offer Sunday Mass,” Gabriel de Souza, 32, told Catholic News Service on 25th September.
“Our expectations are very high, and we are confident that the pope will give a great message on his arrival for humanity and peace,” he added.
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan on 2nd October, after spending two days in Georgia. The Catholic community in Azerbaijan is very small, estimated by the Vatican at just over 500, settled in urban and rural localities, so Catholics will gather in Baku to welcome the pope and celebrate Mass.
Victoria Joseph, 56, told CNS she has never seen a pope in person. She said Pope Francis’ visit made the tiny Catholic community feel important: “It’s a great honour and privilege for Catholics.”
Salesian Fr Vladimir Fekete, head of the Apostolic Prefecture of Azerbaijan, said the papal visit “is highly important not only for Azerbaijan but for the whole Caucasus region.” He said the pope aims to highlight the contributions of Catholics for “peace, religious freedom and interfaith harmony.”
“The Catholic faith will get stronger in this region due to the pope’s visit,” he told CNS. “It also highlights the global role of Vatican in the solution of the regional and global conflicts.”
Since 1988, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been grappling for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. Pope Francis visited Armenia in late June, and on his flight back to Rome he said he hoped to promote peace between the two countries. He said he would tell the people of Azerbaijan “that not making peace over a little piece of land – which is not a big deal – is something dark.”
The Church of the Immaculate Conception is Azerbaijan’s only Catholic church, rebuilt early this century after it had been destroyed in the 1930s under orders from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
After St John Paul II visited Baku in 2002, he presented the local Catholic community with land that had been given to him by President Heydar Aliyev. The church’s construction was funded using royalties from St John Paul’s books and an auction organised by the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples.
Picture: A priest serves Communion during Mass on 25th September at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Baku, Azerbaijan. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan on 2nd October, after spending two days in Georgia. (CNS photo).