Pope praises Communist holdouts

BAKU, Azerbaijan - Pope John Paul II lauded Azerbaijanis who held out against Communist repression and retained their faith, and tried to reach out to the Orthodox Church during a Mass on Thursday in this former Soviet country with a tiny Catholic community.

During the service in an indoor Baku sports arena, guards dragged away a shouting Azerbaijani man after he tried to approach the altar, coming within 15 feet of the pope. Security officials said the man claimed he wanted to have his picture taken with the pontiff. Metal detectors screened all those entering the stadium.

But at the end of the Mass, the man -- identified as Kazim Azimov, who walked with the help of crutches -- was escorted by guards and joined other parishioners in kissing the pope's hand and receiving a blessing from John Paul. Azimov was visibly elated afterward.

The frail, 82-year-old pope was wheeled into the stadium on a movable platform, and mounted the altar using a cane and helped by two aides. His breath was audibly labored, and as he has often done before, he passed the microphone to an aide to read most of his sermon.

The few Catholics in this Muslim nation -- about 120, according to the Vatican -- sat in the front rows during the Mass and were the only ones to respond during the pope's Russian-language readings. The thousands in attendance appeared to be government officials and invited guests.

The church "pays tribute to all those who succeeded in remaining faithful," the pope said. "I am thinking in particular of those who ... experienced the tragedy of Marxist persecution and bore the consequences of their faithful attachment to Christ."

"You saw your religion mocked as mere superstition, as an attempt to escape the responsibilities of engagement in history. For this reason, you were regarded as second-class citizens and were humiliated and marginalized in many ways," he said.

The pope, who has sought to reconcile the millennium-old divide between Catholics and the Orthodox Church, greeted Orthodox leaders.

"You opened your doors to the Catholic faithful, who were without fold or shepherd. May the Lord reward your generosity," he said.

The pope did not mention Islam in his service.

Nor did he mention Azerbaijan's conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave. A cease-fire ended fighting in 1994 after 30,000 people were killed and more than a million people fled their homes.

The pope did, however, announce a $100,000 donation for aid to those refugees and meet with a group of them. He also met representatives of the country's Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox communities.

"Maybe some people will see the way of the Catholics and feel that it's their way," said Leyla Almazade, a 50-year-old Baku resident who attended the Mass and who converted to Catholicism 12 years ago after a heart attack.

The pope left later Thursday for Bulgaria, whose Communist-era secret service once allegedly plotted to kill him.

At the Baku airport, the pope was lifted to his Azerbaijani Airlines plane on a motorized platform used for the first time on this trip so he would not have to climb stairs. Azerbaijani President Geidar Aliev gave the pope a photo album of his trip during a farewell ceremony.

The five-day trip is John Paul's first foreign trip since September, and has been visibly trying. The pope's speech is slurred and his hands tremble -- symptoms of Parkinson's disease -- and he walks with difficulty because of knee and hip ailments.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls brushed aside questions about John Paul's reaction to statements by two influential cardinals last week that he would consider resigning if his health no longer allowed him to carry out his mission.