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Saint John Paul II's Apostolic Visit to Azerbaijan

22nd - 23rd May 2002

Pope Saint John Paul II was a pilgrim to Azerbaijan on his 96th apostolic journey, during which he also visited Bulgaria. His visit marked the tenth anniversary of the beginning of diplomatic relations between Azerbaijan and the Holy See.

Pope Saint John Paul II's address at the Welcoming Ceremony
Baku Airport, Wednesday 22 May 2002 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian & Spanish    

"Mr President, Civic and Religious Authorities, Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. My respectful and cordial greetings to all of you. It was with sincere gratitude, Mr President, that I accepted your repeated invitation to visit this noble country, and now I wish to express my joy that God has granted me the gift of coming to the land of the Azeri and meeting its people.

I thank you for your kind words of welcome. This visit takes place on the tenth anniversary of the beginning of diplomatic relations between Azerbaijan and the Holy See. In these years, your experience of independence, attained after a long period of foreign domination, has involved not a little difficulty and suffering, but you have never lost the hope of building a better future in freedom. The nation has seen its contacts with other peoples grow and be strengthened. This has led to a mutual enrichment which will surely bring good results in the years to come.

2. I arrive in this ancient land, with my heart filled with admiration for the variety and richness of its culture. Enriched by the many specific features of the Caucasus, your culture embraces elements of various civilizations, especially the Persian and Turanian. Great religions have been present and active in this land: Zoroastrianism lived side by side with the Christianity of the Albanian Church, which was so significant in antiquity. Islam then played a growing role, and today is the religion of the majority of the Azeri people. Judaism too, present here from very ancient times, has made its own specific contribution, which is esteemed to this day.

Even after the initial splendour of the Church diminished, Christians have continued to live side by side with the followers of other religions. This has been possible thanks to a spirit of tolerance and mutual acceptance, which cannot fail to be a reason for pride for the country. I hope and pray to God that any remaining tensions will soon be overcome and that all will find peace in justice and truth.

3. Azerbaijan is a gateway between East and West: for this reason it not only enjoys considerable strategic importance, but also a symbolic value of openness and exchange which, if fostered by all parties, can ensure a particularly prominent role for the Azeri nation. It is time for the West to reawaken, along with full respect for the East, a more intense cultural and spiritual encounter with the values it embodies.

From this gateway of civilization which is Azerbaijan, I address today a heartfelt appeal to those lands experiencing the upheavals of conflict, which are bringing unspeakable suffering for their defenceless peoples. Everyone must be committed to peace. But it must be true peace, based on mutual respect, on the rejection of fundamentalism and every form of imperialism, on the pursuit of dialogue as the only effective means of resolving tensions, so that entire nations are saved from the cruelty of violence.

4. The religions which in this country are striving to work together in harmony should not be used as a tragic excuse for enmities which have their origin elsewhere. No one has the right to call upon God to justify their own selfish interests.

Here at the gateway to the East, not far from where armed conflict continues, cruelly and senselessly, to prevail, I wish to raise my voice, in the spirit of the Assisi meetings. I ask religious leaders to reject all violence as offensive to the name of God, and to be tireless promoters of peace and harmony, with respect for the rights of one and all.

My thoughts go also to the emigrants and refugees in this country and throughout the whole of the Caucasus. With the help of international solidarity, may their hopes be restored for a future of prosperity and peace in their own lands for themselves and for their dear ones.

5. To the Christians of this land, and particularly the Catholic community, I extend affectionate greetings. The Christians of the whole world look with sincere attachment to these brothers and sisters in the faith, certain that, although they are few, they can make a significant contribution to the progress and prosperity of their homeland, in a climate of freedom and mutual respect.

I am certain that the Lord will compensate for the tragic difficulties endured during the time of communism, also by the Catholic community, with the gift of lively faith, exemplary moral commitment and local vocations for pastoral and religious service.

At the beginning of my visit to Azerbaijan, I invoke God’s blessings upon its people and upon their commitment to securing a future of justice and freedom.

To Azerbaijan and its noble people go my best wishes of prosperity, progress and peace!"

Papa San Giovanni Paolo II's address to religious leaders and political, cultural & arts representatives
Presidential Palace, Baku, Wednesday 22 May 2002 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian & Spanish    

"Mr President of the Republic, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. I am very pleased to be with you today. I greet each one of you, with special thanks to the President of the Republic who, in your name, has given me such a warm welcome.

One of your great poets wrote: "The word, new and at the same time old . . . The word, which is like the spirit, is the treasurer of the riches of the invisible realm: it knows stories never heard, it reads books never written" (Nizami, The Seven Effigies). This image alludes to something that is dear to the three great religions present in this country: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. According to the teachings of each of them, the One God, shrouded in unapproachable mystery, has chosen to speak to man, inviting him to submit to his will.

2. Despite the differences between us, together we feel called to foster ties of mutual esteem and benevolence. I am aware of all that is being done by religious leaders in Azerbaijan to favour tolerance and mutual understanding. I am looking forward to the meeting tomorrow with the representatives of the three monotheistic religions, so that together we can affirm our conviction that religion must not serve to increase rivalry and hatred, but to promote love and peace.

From this country, which has held and still holds tolerance as a primary value of all wholesome life in society, we wish to 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!" And when word joins word, a chorus is born, a symphony, which will spread to every soul, quench hatred, disarm hearts.

3. Praise to you, followers of Islam in Azerbaijan, for being open to hospitality, a cherished value of your religion and your people, and for having accepted the believers of other religions as brothers and sisters.

Praise to you, Jewish people, who, with courage and constancy, have kept your ancient traditions of good neighbourliness, enriching this land with a contribution of great value and depth.

Praise to you, Christians, who have given so much, especially through the ancient Church of the Albans, in shaping the identity of this land. Praise especially to you, Orthodox Church, witness to God’s friendship with man and a hymn extolling his beauty. When the fury of atheism was unleashed in this region, you welcomed the children of the Catholic Church who had lost their places of worship and their pastors, and put them into contact with Christ through the grace of the holy Sacraments.

Praised be God for this testimony of love, borne by the three great religions! May it grow and become ever stronger, extinguishing with the dew of affection and friendship any remaining source of contrast!

4. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, in addition to the world of religion, you represent the world of culture, art and politics. What an extraordinary vocation you have received and what high responsibilities you bear! So many people today feel lost and are seeking an identity.

To you, representatives of culture and art, I say: beauty, as you know, is the light of the spirit. The soul, when it is calm and reconciled, when it lives in harmony with God and the universe, emits a light that is already a kind of beauty. Holiness is nothing other than fullness of beauty, as it reflects, according to its ability, the consummate beauty of the Creator. It is your poet Nizami once more who writes: "The intelligent people are those angels who have human names. Intelligence is something marvellous" (The Seven Effigies).

Dear friends, men and women of the world of culture and art, transmit a taste for beauty to all those you meet! As the ancients teach us, beauty, truth and goodness are united by an indissoluble bond.

5. In this land, none of those who have devoted themselves to culture and art can feel useless or unrecognized. This contribution is essential for the future of the Azerbaijani people. If culture is cast aside, if art is neglected and despised, the very survival of a civilization is imperiled, for that would hinder the handing on of the values that constitute the deepest identity of a people.

In the recent past, a materialistic and neo-pagan vision has often characterized the study of national cultures. Yours is the task, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, of rediscovering the entire heritage of your civilization as the source of ever relevant values. In this way you will be able to prepare suitable study materials for young people wishing to know the genuine wealth of history of their country, in order to build their lives as citizens on a solid foundation.

6. I turn to you, the men and women of politics! Your specific activity is the service of the common good, the promotion of legality and justice, the guarantee of freedom and prosperity for all. But politics is also an area fraught with dangers. The selfish seeking of personal advantage can easily take over, to the detriment of faithful dedication to the common good. The great Nizami warns: "Do not eat in the presence of those who are starving, or, if you do, invite everyone to table" (The Seven Effigies).

Politics requires honesty and accountability. The people should be able to feel understood and protected. They should be able to see that their leaders are working to build a better future for them. Let it not happen that when people are faced with situations of increasing social inequality, they begin to feel dangerous nostalgia for the past.

Those who accept responsibility for administering public affairs cannot deceive themselves: people do not forget! Just as they remember with gratitude those who have laboured honestly in the service of the common good, so they pass on to their children and grandchildren bitter criticism of those who abused power to enrich themselves.

7. There is one thing in particular that I would like to say to you, men and women of the world of religion, culture, art and politics: look to your young people and spare no effort on their behalf! They are tomorrow’s potential. They must be assured the chance to study and work, according to their aptitudes and capacity. Above all, care must be taken to educate them in the important values which last and give meaning to life and its pursuits.

In this task, you especially who belong to the world of culture, art and politics should see religion as your ally. It stands with you to offer young people serious reasons for applying themselves. What ideal in fact is better able to motivate the quest for truth, beauty and goodness than belief in God, who reveals to the mind the limitless expanse of his supreme perfection?

And you, the men and women of religion, you should become ever more involved in proclaiming with sincerity and frankness the values in which you believe, without recourse to dishonest means that impoverish and betray the ideals you affirm. Take a hard look at the substance of these ideals, and avoid methods of persuasion that do not respect the dignity and freedom of the human person.

8. In one of his prayers to God, Nizami wrote: "If your servant ... has shown boldness in the formulation of his prayer, his water still belongs for ever to your sea ... If he spoke a hundred languages, in each tongue he would praise you; if he falls silent like those forsaken, you comprehend the language of him who has no words" (Leila and Majnun).

From this cosmopolitan land, may a hundred different languages raise their prayer to the living God, who listens above all to those who are poor and forgotten.

Upon all of you present here, upon your people, upon your future, may the blessings of Almighty God descend, bringing prosperity and peace to all!

The beauty of the hymn "Ave Maria" invites all of us to a better life and work. Again many thanks to all present here."

Saint John Paul II's homily at Holy Mass
Baku Sports Centre, Thursday 23 May 2002 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian & Spanish    

"1. "Honour to you who believe!" (1 Pt 2, 7).

Yes, beloved brothers and sisters of the Catholic community of Baku, and all of you who come from the Catholic communities in the neighbouring countries, "honour to you who believe!" I greet the Christians of the Orthodox Church who have joined us for this solemn moment of prayer, with their Bishop Alexander. To them too I address the words of the Apostle Peter to the first Christians: "Honour to you who believe!"

The universal Church pays tribute to all those who succeeded in remaining faithful to their baptismal commitments. I am thinking in particular of those who live permanently in this country and who experienced the tragedy of Marxist persecution, and bore the consequences of their faithful attachment to Christ. Brothers and sisters, you saw your religion mocked as mere superstition, as an attempt to escape the responsibilities of engagement in history. For this reason you were regarded as second class citizens and were humiliated and marginalized in many ways.

2. "Honour to you who believe!" Honour to your grandfathers and grandmothers, to your fathers and mothers, who nurtured the seed of faith in you, nourished it with prayer, and helped it to grow and bear fruit. I wish to repeat once again, honour also to you, the holy Orthodox Church; you opened your doors to the Catholic faithful, who were without fold or shepherd. May the Lord reward your generosity.

I extend a special greeting to the Superior of the mission sui iuris, and the Salesian community that works with him looking after the Catholics. Brothers and sisters, you are the living proof that faith in God works miracles. Though you are few in number and belong to different ethnic groups, scattered over a vast territory, the Good Shepherd has kept you together in unity.

3. "I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me" (Jn 10, 14), says the Lord in the Gospel passage we have just heard. Truly, Lord Jesus, you knew your sheep, even when they were persecuted and forced to hide. You knew them and were close to them, and supported them when they were disheartened by severe physical and moral isolation and tempted to scatter.

For their part, your sheep continued to know and recognize you, to experience your comforting presence, and to follow you despite the tribulations of the journey. What a marvellous exchange! You had offered your life for them, and they offered theirs for you, praying that their faith would not falter. And just as you took up your life again, so too the community of survivors, restored to freedom, rediscovered the joy of gathering together to celebrate their faith in your house, from which the prayer of praise and thanksgiving, like the fragrance of incense, now rises once more to heaven.

4. Brothers and sisters, beloved sons and daughters of the Catholic Church, today the Pope is with you. He too knows of your suffering, and has carried you in his heart during the years of wandering in the desert of persecution. Today he is here to share in your joy at freedom restored, and to support you on the journey which has as its final goal the promised land of Heaven, where the Lord of life will wipe away every tear: "death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Rev 21, 4).

Sustained by this certainty, you know that this is a time of joy, a time of hope. A sign of this is the foundation stone of the parish church to be built, which I shall bless at the end of Mass. The Pope brings you the greetings and the esteem of the entire Catholic Church. Today, the eyes of all are turned to you, the "little flock" (Lk 12, 32). Do not be afraid! Open your hearts, and hope in the Lord. You are already experiencing the resurrection; in a way you are enjoying a foretaste of the final meeting with the glorious Christ.

5. O Church present in Azerbaijan, today I would like to leave you as your task what we asked for in the opening prayer of today’s Eucharist. Know that you are "a people gathered from all the nations of the earth in the unity of the one spirit".

Your community, brothers and sisters, is a symbolic expression of that universality, made up as it is of people from various backgrounds, some with a past and the prospect of stability, others on their way to other lands. We all form one people, inspired by the one Holy Spirit. Wherever the Eucharist is celebrated, the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic" Church is present.

It seems to me, at this moment, that Bernini’s colonnade, those arms stretching out from the Basilica of Saint Peter to embrace the world, reaches out to hold you too, the little Catholic community of Azerbaijan, close to the bosom of Christ and the Church. In this embrace, the heart of the whole Church beats with affection and love for you. With the Church, and in her, beats the heart of the Pope, who has come here to tell you that he loves you and has never forgotten you.

6. Be faithful to your mission! You were faithful in the time of trial, when in tears you carried the seed for sowing. Be faithful now in joy, as you prepare to gather the sheaves (cf Ps 125, 6). Your mission is to preserve the faith and bear witness to it with a life which is truly prophetic, so that the world may believe. In seeing you, may your brothers and sisters in this country see how much you believe, how much you hope, how much you love. This will be your way of showing that the Risen One is present. Let your witness, which cannot count on abundant resources, exercise its influence through the strength of Christ’s grace, the leaven which, though invisible, can make the whole loaf rise.

You share the joys and hopes of the people who live close to you and with you: you are part of them and with them you must hope and work for a better future for all. Be cautious, but have the courage to make things new. There is need for renewal here too, in this land! Not the novelty that only brings uncertainty and insecurity, no! Rather, the newness that will restore to all, especially the young, a desire to live and work for a world of greater justice and solidarity.

7. Look at them, these young people! They run the risk of succumbing to the illusion of aimless idleness, of easy but dishonest gain. But they are also able to commit themselves to an ideal and risk the heroism of sacrifice in order to bring about the victory of justice and promote the establishment of freedom and peace. They must be taught not to be afraid to dare. We have to reveal to them the radiant perspective of faith, of the friendship of Christ. There is no enthusiasm for good that Christ does not understand, for he himself is eternally young!

O Church that prays, hopes and loves in this land of Azerbaijan, the Pope invokes upon you the blessing of the Lord. Take his blessing to your poor, sick and suffering. Take it to everyone, as an outpouring of grace and love. Never forget that you are called to be the leaven and the soul of the world, for the Lord is with you and he goes before you on your journey. Amen!"