Pope Arrives in Azerbaijan

AZERBAIJAN, May 22, 02 (CWNews.com) - Pope John Paul II arrived in Azerbaijan today, beginning the 96th foreign trip of his pontificate.

Arriving at the airport in Baku, the country's capital, on Wednesday afternoon, the Pope made an "anguished" appeal for peace in his first remarks. Noting that the former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea has been a "theater for violent clashes," the Pontiff delivered one of his most impassioned pleas for world peace.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters that the Holy Father wanted to speak about peacemaking in Azerbaijan, not only because of that country's continuing border dispute with neighboring Armenia, but also because of the violence that has bloodied nearby lands, including Chechnya and the Balkans. Navarro-Valls also pointed to the fighting in the early 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet empire, leading up to the independence of Azerbaijan.

Pope John Paul arrived in Baku after a four-hour flight from Rome. He left the plane on an electric platform, which functioned as a sort of elevator, making it unnecessary for him to climb down steps. Reaching the ground, he kissed the soil of Azerbaijan. As he has done on most of his recent trips, rather than kneeling to kiss the ground, he kissed the soil held up in a bowl by two young Azeris.

The airport welcoming ceremony was deliberately low-key. The Pope was met by Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev, several diplomats, and religious leaders including Father Josif Daniil Pravda, the pastor of the country's only Catholic parish. After listening to the Azeri national anthem, the Pope delivered his address.

"From this gateway of civilization which is Azerbaijan," the Holy Father said, "I address today a heartfelt appeal to those lands experiencing the upheavals of conflict." He condemned "fundamentalism and every form of imperialism," and urged leaders to use dialogue rather than warfare to resolve problems, "so that whole nations are spared the cruelty of violence." John Paul also repeated his insistence that religious faith must never be used as a justification for violence.

Upon leaving the airport, the Pope visited a monument dedicated to those who died in the war for independence during the 1990s. After a courtesy call on President Aliyev, he will meet with the country's political and cultural leaders.

Pope John Paul showed signs of acute fatigue as he left the airplane; organizers of the trip explained that he had been unable to sleep during the trip from Rome. He delivered his airport speech in a very weak voice. But Navarro-Valls assured reporters that the Pope had undertaken the trip in part "to show that he can continue his mission." The papal spokesman said that the Pope's public activities, during this trip to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, will enable the media to "make a judgment about the state of his health-- which, to be sure, has its limits."

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22. mai 2002

av Webmaster publisert 23.05.2002, sist endret 23.05.2002 - 00:33