At first glance, Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shia Muslim state, seems an unlikely destination for the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. But Pope Francis’ 10-hour visit to Baku on October 2 was not so much about religion as it was about PR payback.
Since 2012, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, run by Azerbaijan’s first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, has donated undisclosed sums to finance restoration work at the Vatican, including repairs to the Sistine Chapel.
The Foundation, named in honor of President Ilham Aliyev’s father and predecessor, the late Heydar Aliyev, also has provided funds for other projects, including the restoration of two Vatican catacombs and the preservation and digitization of ancient manuscripts in the Apostolic Library.
In 2012, the Vatican termed the catacombs donation the first of its kind by a predominantly Muslim country, although Azerbaijan’s government is secular in nature. Vatican officials did not respond to a question about whether other predominantly Muslim states have supported similar projects.
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Vusala Alibayli contributed reporting to this article.