A Papal «First»: John Paul II to Stay in Hotel in Azerbaijan

VATICAN CITY, MAY 22, 2002 (VIS) - Pope John Paul left this morning on a five-day pastoral visit to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, the 96th foreign apostolic trip of his 23 and a half-year papacy.

Two "firsts" will mark the Pope's stay of 25 hours in Azerbaijan. For the first time ever he will stay in a hotel, the three-star Irshad Hotel in Baku, which will have a diplomatic statute for the duration of his stay. The Pope usually resides at the local bishop's residence, the apostolic nunciature or, on occasion, a seminary or monastery. However, there is no bishop in Azerbaijan, In fact, the Catholic populace of this predominantly Muslim country numbers only 120 faithful, the smallest ever number of Catholics in a country visited by a Roman Pontiff.

Azerbaijan occupies an area of 86,000 square kilometers and has a population of 7,558,000 of whom 1.7 million live in the capital of Baku. The official language is Azerbaijani, though Russian is also spoken. Shiite Muslims are 62 percent of the populace, Sunni Muslims 26 percent and Orthodox the remaining 12 percent.

Once part of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991. It is the eighth former Soviet republic to be visited by John Paul II, following Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia. It is the 24th country with a Muslim majority that the Pope has visited, but the first with a prevalently Shiite population.

According to an informational booklet on both Azerbaijan and Bulgaria prepared by Vatican Radio with statistics and historical background on the two countries, there is one ecclesiastical circumscription for the 120 Catholics in Azerbaijan - the "sui iuris" mission of Baku - one parish, two priests, one male Religious and three pastoral ministry workers.

Catholics in Azerbaijan were once a larger community, though always a discreet number, and were mostly linked to non-Azerbaijani ethnic groups, in particular of Polish origin. A beautiful Catholic basilica was erected in Baku in 1888 but Joseph Stalin ordered its destruction during the last century. During that difficult period Catholics turned to the Orthodox Church which generously assured them the sacraments. After the fall of communism, Catholics were under the care of the Apostolic Administration of the Caucasus of the Latins; they are now in the care of the Salesians.

The Catholic community is constituted of both local people, descendants of Catholic immigrants, who celebrate the liturgy in Russian, and the foreign community which uses English in its liturgy.

There are also communities of Lutherans, Baptists and Pentecostals.

Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti was appointed apostolic nuncio in Azerbaijan on December 13, 2001. He is also nuncio in Armenia and in Georgia. The superior of the "sui iuris" mission in Baku is Fr. Joseph Daniel Pravda, S.D.B.

Vatican Information Service
22. mai 2002

av Webmaster publisert 22.05.2002, sist endret 22.05.2002 - 17:54