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Pope Prepares for Azerbaijan Visit

May 22, 2002

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) _ The widely traveled Pope John Paul II will be making what would seem an unlikely first when he visits the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan: He’s staying in a hotel.

John Paul arrives Wednesday in the capital city, Baku, for a two-day visit that includes a mass at a sports arena and meetings with President Geidar Aliev.

But the Roman Catholic community here was only registered in 1999 and has just 150 parishioners, half of them expatriates. Because the local church had no lodging fit for a pope, the pontiff will depart from tradition and stay at the four-star, 15-room Irshad Hotel located next to a city park. He might even catch a glimpse of the sea from his sixth-floor room.

Hotel director Vugar Mirzoyev said when Vatican representatives approached him last month, he had no idea it was the pope who needed a roof over his head. After John Paul leaves, Mirzoyev plans to do something with the room to commemorate the stay of what will have been the hotel’s most famous guest.

The pope’s visit to this Muslim country of 7.5 million people on the Caspian Sea is seen as part of his campaign to promote harmony between different religions.

He was invited by President Aliev, who has expressed hopes that the Vatican could play a role in breaking the stalemate with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave located in Azerbaijan.

The conflict has left 30,000 people dead, more than a million homeless and 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory under de facto Armenian control. A cease-fire has been in effect in the enclave since 1994.

Aliev came to power in what was essentially a bloodless coup in 1993 and was re-elected in 1998 in a vote criticized as flawed by international observers. The aging leader has made it clear that he hopes his son succeeds him in office.

The first stop on the pope’s visit will be the Martyrs’ Lane, where rows of black, granite tombstones marking the graves of those killed in Nagorno-Karabakh far outnumber the markers of those who died when Soviet tanks clumsily put down a nationalist uprising in January 1990 _ the event the memorial was originally built to commemorate.

On Tuesday, soldiers in dark-green camouflage practiced drills for the pope’s arrival.

The head of a leading opposition party, Isa Gambar, said the papal visit is a positive event for Azerbaijan, but he doubts the pontiff will bring any movement on Nagorno-Karabakh.

``It doesn’t pay to have overly large hopes the pope’s visit will help normalize the conflict,″ he said.

Vatican representatives have said John Paul chose to visit the country because it lies at the crossroads of East and West and is an example of religions living together.

But a report issued this month by the British-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet Union, said Azerbaijan has been tightening controls over religion under a re-registration process launched last year. The report said people of varying faiths have been detained, beaten and fined.

The crackdown is being led by Rafik Aliev, head of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organizations, who also happens to be the owner of the Irshad Hotel, where the Pope is staying. Aliev has no relation to the president.

Haji Akif Agaev, deputy head of the Caucasus Muslim Board that governs the religion across the region, condemned what he called ``missionaries″ who are using Azerbaijan’s depressed economic situation to win followers, but said John Paul is viewed favorably by many citizens here because of his role in the downfall of communism in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

``The pope isn’t associated only with religion, but also as a person who has done much in the fight against totalitarianism,″ Agaev said.

On Friday, the pope goes on to Bulgaria, where he hopes to strengthen relations with Orthodox Christians.

The five-day trip to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria is the first of a series that will test the 82-year-old pontiff’s stamina. He is scheduled to visit Canada, Mexico and Guatemala in July and his native Poland in August. There is also talk of a trip to Croatia in September.

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