Azerbaijan Prepares for Pope Visit

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) - Soldiers in dark-green camouflage snapped their bayonets at the Martyrs' Lane cemetery Tuesday, practicing drills for the arrival of Pope John Paul II.

Most of the hundreds of rows of black, granite tombstones are for those killed in fighting during the civil war in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

A cease-fire ended the fighting in 1994, but a stalemate continues, and John Paul's two-day visit to this Muslim country is raising hopes that he could be a voice for peace in the conflict that has left 30,000 dead and more than a million people homeless.

"Of course all the young people still have hope for peace — you see how many dead we have here," said Ilgar, a worker at the memorial who declined to give his last name.

Recent months have seen growing numbers of opposition protests in Azerbaijan, focused on President Geidar Aliev's rule and his handling of Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict ended with 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory becoming a de facto part of Armenia.

Isa Gambar, the head of a leading opposition party, says the papal visit on Wednesday and Thursday will be a positive event for the entire country, but he doubts the pontiff will bring any movement in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"It doesn't pay to have overly large hopes the pope's visit will help normalize the conflict that will in the end be disappointed," he said.

The head of the tiny Roman Catholic community here of 150 parishioners — half of them foreigners — said the pope wouldn't take on the role of a peacemaker in the conflict but that the church will try to do what it can.

"We pray that this conflict comes to an end and that the church can help with this," the Rev. Daniel Pravda said.

The pope's visit to this country of 7.5 million is part of his effort to push for religious harmony, and his representatives say he chose to visit Azerbaijan because, aside from Nagorno-Karabakh, it is an example of how different religions can coexist.

"This is a land where people of different ethnicities live peacefully with one another and there has never been religious fighting," said Haji Akif Agaev, deputy head of the Caucasus Muslim Board.

Indeed, the interview in Agaev's office next to the Teze-Pir Mosque is interrupted when a Jewish leader enters to warmly greet Agaev.

However, Azerbaijan did draw criticism in a report issued this month by the British-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet Union. The report said the last six months have seen increased controls over religion in the country, and said some believers have been detained, beaten and fined.

Agaev was quick to condemn what he called "missionaries" — people he said were taking advantage of the country's depressed economy to attract followers. However, he said he didn't view the pope's visit as an attempt to convert Muslims but rather as a state visit at the invitation of the president.

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

John Paul will celebrate Mass at a 5,000-capacity indoor sports arena Thursday and meet with Aliev and local religious leaders before departing for Bulgaria. For the first time on a foreign trip, the pope is staying in a hotel — there were no local church facilities fit to house him.