Pope Francis on Oct. 2 arrived in mainly Muslim Azerbaijan on the last leg of his peace tour of the volatile ex-Soviet Caucasus region, just months after visiting arch-foe Armenia.
The pontiff held a mass for the country’s tiny Catholic community in the capital Bakuahead of a scheduled meeting with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev.
The meeting comes just days after strongman Aliyev – who is accused of ruthlessly stamping out dissent in the energy-rich country – won a referendum on constitutional changes seen as consolidating his family’s grip on power.
“You are a little flock precious in God’s eyes,” the Pope said in his homily to the country’s few hundred Catholics.
“The entire Church, which has for you a special sympathy, looks at you and encourages you.”
Azerbaijan’s Catholic community only counts some 570 faithful, according to the Vatican, with seven priests serving in the Caspian Sea country’s sole Catholic parish. The country is mostly Shiite Muslim.
Francis arrived in Baku from neighboring Georgia, one of the world’s oldest Christian nations, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 over two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Moscow-backed territories are under what Georgia insists is a de facto Russianoccupation.
Francis spoke of the need for refugees to return to their homes and called for respect for national sovereignty, but he seemed to dodge potential Russian ire by avoiding the word “occupation.”
The pontiff has been on drive to reach out to Orthodox communities around the world and received a warm welcome from Georgia’s pro-Western leaders and the head of the country’s Orthodox Church.
But a centuries-old doctrinal dispute saw Georgian Orthodox officials skip an open-air mass by Francis in Tbilisi and only several thousand worshippers – mainly from the small Catholic community – attended.