Papal Visit Raises Hopes for Greater Degree of Religious Freedom in Azerbaijan
The visit has been welcomed by minority religious groups, which have been under increasing pressure from the Azerbaijani authorities. Indeed, the issue of religious freedom has become increasingly prominent throughout the Caucasus.
The pope's visit comes in the context of a high-profile papal visit to Armenia last September. That visit prompted Azerbaijani leaders to express concern that the Vatican was taking sides in the ongoing dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh's status. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Papal representatives say that John Paul II's aims for the visit are as much diplomatic as they are religious; he has no desire for the Catholic church to appear partisan in any conflict, and his visit to Baku will underscore the Vatican's even-handedness concerning the Karabakh issue.
"We hope the authority of the [Roman Catholic] church will help prevent the spread of conflicts in this region [the Caucasus]," Father Iosif Daniil, the head of Azerbaijan's Catholic community, told Ekho radio in Baku on May 18.
The head of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, Rafik Aliyev, said he believed the Pope's visit could help to promote the peaceful settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, and that the visit would enhance Azerbaijan's prestige and credibility and boost its standing in the international community.
Aliyev went on to describe John Paul II as a "progressive" the first pope to visit a mosque and the first Christian leader to offer an apology to Muslims for the Crusades. "Aliyev thinks that allegations that the Pope's visit is aimed at the spread of Catholicism are wrong," the Turan news agency reported.
Such praise comes as a surprise to many in Baku who have been following recent developments in freedom of religion in Azerbaijan. Over the past six months, Rafik Aliyev and his committee have presided over an unprecedented crackdown on religious activity that falls outside the state-approved norm.
Aliyev himself alleged that some religious communities may be using religion as a cover for illegal activity, and the State Committee recently ordered a re-registration of all religious groups. This process resulted in a reduction of the number of registered religious communities from 406 to 125, amid a chorus of allegations of unfairness, arbitrariness, bureaucratic meddling and straightforward intimidation.
"The State Committee has arbitrarily denied registration or re-registration to many religious communities; believers of a number of faiths have been detained, beaten and fined; religious literature remains censored; and the State Committee has interfered especially in the internal affairs of the Muslim Community," reported Felix Corley, editor of Keston News Service (KNS), which covers religious liberty developments in the former Soviet republics.
The re-registration process was accompanied by a media campaign in which Islamic communities outside the mainstream were depicted as being under the influence of foreign states or interests. Meanwhile, Christian groups have been routinely accused of proselytizing and spreading pro-Armenian propaganda. The media campaign helped fuel popular suspicion of many Christian groups and of non-mainstream Islamic worshipers.
The majority of Azerbaijan's 8 million inhabitants are Shiite Muslim. The practicing Catholic community is estimated at about 130, about half of them expatriates living in Baku, according to Father Daniil.
Opposition to the Pope's visit is strong among leaders of the state-sanctioned Islamic establishment. "My opinion of the Pope's visit is unambiguously negative," one imam told a Baku newspaper. "As a religious man, I'm anxious about the arrival of such a man
Clare Doyle is a freelance journalist based in Baku.