BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Pope Francis arrived in Azerbaijan on Sunday for a 10-hour visit aimed at encouraging the country’s multi-faith society and likely overlooking recent criticism of a referendum that extends the president’s term and powers.
Azerbaijan, the second-largest Shiite Muslim nation after Iran, has a tiny Catholic population — fewer than 300 Azeris are Catholics. Several thousand foreigners make up the rest of the Catholic community, and Azeri Jews, Zoroastrians and other minorities round out Azerbaijan’s religious mix.
Francis will meet with representatives of all the main faiths as well as President Heydar Aliyev before heading back to Rome on Sunday night after a weekend visit that took him first to Georgia.
Last week, Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission said more than 80 percent of voters backed a constitutional amendment extending the presidential term from five to seven years, and granting the president the right to dissolve parliament, creating new vice presidential jobs and canceling age limits.
Aliyev’s opponents, as well as rights organizations including Amnesty International and Freedom House, said the moves would cement a dynastic rule in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation. The Azerbaijani government has rejected the criticism, saying the constitutional amendments are intended to cut the red tape and speed up economic reforms.
It’s unknown if Francis will press Aliyev on the issue or other broader criticisms of alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.
Francis will celebrate Mass in the Catholic church that was built after St. John Paul II visited Azerbaijan in 2002. After that visit, Aliyev donated a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital, and local Muslims and Jews helped build it.
“I cannot contain my boundless joy,” 61-year old parishioner Eva Agalarova said of Francis’ visit. “It is both joy and happiness that the faith gives me.”
Francis’ visit to Azerbaijan comes after a June visit to neighboring Armenia, in hopes of bringing a message of peace between two former Soviet republics over Nagorno-Karabakh. That region is officially part of Azerbaijan, but since a separatist war ended in 1994, it has been under the control of forces that claim to be local ethnic Armenians but that Azerbaijan claims include the Armenian military.
Local Azeri media hasn’t given much attention to the papal visit and many were unaware of the upcoming Mass. But Baku’s Muslim residents still welcomed Francis’ visit.
“Islam is a tolerant religion and it accepts all faiths,” said the hijab-wearing Aygun Mikayilova. “I will welcome the pope’s visit if he is bringing a message of peace, calm and tolerance.”
Aliyev, in office since succeeding his father in 2003, has firmly allied the Shiite Muslim nation with the West, helping secure its energy and security interests and offset Russia’s influence in the strategic Caspian region.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield