Azerbaijani Catholics Get Papal Praise

Benedict XVI Sends Greeting as a Cornerstone Is Placed

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BAKU, Azerbaijan, SEPT. 14, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI expressed his admiration for the tiny Catholic community -- fewer than 300 faithful -- of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.



The republic, which is sandwiched between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea, marked a historic moment last weekend with the placing of the cornerstone of the first church to be built in the capital Baku since the fall of Communism.

The Pope's sentiments were expressed to the faithful by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, during his pastoral visit to Azerbaijan's capital from Sept. 10-12, reported the missionary agency Fides.

"Despite the long decades of violent persecution against any expression of faith, you kept the faith, you remained faithful to the Lord," said the cardinal to the community gathered in the chapel of Baku for Sunday Mass.

At the start of his homily, the prefect expressed to those present Benedict XVI's greetings.

"His heart is with all of you," the cardinal said. "He looks at you with admiration and hope and imparts to you the apostolic blessing."

John Paul II's visit

Cardinal Sepe then greeted the civil and government authorities; the representatives of several religious confessions; the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti; the superior of the Catholic mission in Azerbaijan, Father Jan Capla; and others present.

Azerbaijan, which gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has 8 million inhabitants, 84% of whom are Muslim. Christians, mostly Orthodox, number 350,000. The Catholic community has some 150 Azerbaijani citizens and about 120 foreigners.

In this land, the Christian presence dates back to the first century. The Catholic community virtually disappeared with Stalin's persecutions and the Catholic church of Baku was destroyed. During the Soviet era, Orthodox faithful received the few existing Catholics.

On the occasion of John Paul II's visit to the country in 2002, President Heider Aliev, a former Communist, put a plot of land in Baku at his disposition for the building of a Catholic church.

"Although the memory of the past, as I believe, is very alive and it's not easy to forgive and forget, nevertheless Christianity must always forgive, in keeping with Jesus' example," Cardinal Sepe said during Sunday's Mass. "Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, but of strength and it engenders peace and reconciliation, against every temptation to intolerance and fundamentalism."

On behalf of the Pope, Cardinal Sepe also praised the faithful "for being able to establish constructive interreligious dialogue, peaceful coexistence and reciprocal consideration between Muslims, Orthodox, Jews and Catholics."

Dedicated to Mary

On Sunday afternoon, Cardinal Sepe presided over the ceremony in Baku to place the cornerstone, which was blessed by Pope John Paul II, and the start of the works of construction of the new church.

The new church will be dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and will have a building for worship, a pastoral center and a residence for priests. The style of the church will be neo-Gothic and will recall the old facade of the building which was destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s.

For Father Capla, the superior of the mission, the placing of the corner stone of the new church of Baku "means that the Church is alive, it is present, and it grows under the protection of the Virgin Mary."

The center will be entrusted to the Sisters of Charity, daughters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.