Azerbaijan hopes “interested” Pope Francis will mediate its dispute with Armenia, said Rahman Mustafàyev, Azeri ambassador to the Holy See, on January 17, 2022. Speaking at a press briefing in Rome at the conclusion of an interfaith trip led by Sheikh Allahshükür Hummat Pashazade, grand mufti of the Caucasus, the diplomat explained that the fact that the Holy See has “good relations with both sides” justified the request.
On November 10, 2020, the second war in Nagorno-Karabakh came to an end, with Azerbaijan taking control of the mountainous region, which until then had been part of Armenia. The latter denounced an invasion. Although the conflict has officially ended since the armistice, tensions and clashes on the border have multiplied since then.
During this period, Azerbaijan has strengthened its diplomatic presence with the Holy See, which is also a regular interlocutor of Armenia – the Holy See recently opened its embassy in Yerevan. Azerbaijan will open the offices of its Vatican embassy in a few months, a decision of Baku that comes as the two states will celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations this year.
Patriarch Kirill’s mediation
To explain what Azerbaijan expects from the Holy See, Ambassador Mustafàyev offered as an example the mediation performed by Patriarch Kirill in October 2021.
In Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church had brought together Sheikh Pashazade and the Catholicos of all Armenians Karekin II. A declaration signed by the three parties defended the respect of places of worship, religious feelings and burials, and called on all to “avoid the language of hatred” in the future.
Azerbaijan says it is aligned with the principles of Fratelli tutti
“This is not a religious conflict,” Sheikh Pashazade assured at the press conference, but ” a political one.” “All religious representatives live in peace in Azerbaijan,” he assured.
Having come to Rome for five days at the head of an interfaith delegation from his country – including Azerbaijan’s apostolic prefect, Archbishop Vladimír Fekete, and Archimandrite Alexei Nikorov of the Russian Orthodox Church – the Muslim representative met with the pontiff during an audience at the Vatican on Jan. 13.
“I thank Pope Francis for receiving us,” the Azeri sheikh said, referring to the fraternal meeting and commending the long relationship of friendship between Azerbaijan and the Holy See.
He also praised the Document on Human Fraternity – a text co-signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in 2019 that defends the principles of peaceful coexistence of religions – and the encyclical Fratelli tutti.
Denunciation of Armenian “vandalism
The Muslim religious leader denounced the behavior of Armenians to the pontiff, referring to the “vandalism” observed in Muslim places of worship in Nagorno-Karabakh, but also that against Christian buildings not belonging to the local Church. During the press conference, Archimandrite Alexei was also moved by the destruction of a Russian Orthodox church on Armenian soil. These statements are in opposition to those of the Armenian government, which also denounces the destruction of Armenian religious heritage by the Azeris.
In recent days, the Azeri delegation has defended its point of view by meeting with several important personalities of the Curia, starting with the Cardinal-Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and the Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher. They “are closely following the situation in our country,” the Azeri ambassador assured.
The representatives were also received by the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, described by the ambassador as their “main partner” during this trip.
The diplomacy of art restoration
During this stay, the delegation had two other important meetings, the first with Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the second with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture. These two high-ranking prelates are privileged interlocutors for Azerbaijan because of its important patronage in Rome.
Since 2012, the government of President Ilham Aliyev has financed a large number of restoration works on several monuments from the early days of the Church in the Eternal City. This is the case of the frescoes in the catacombs of Santi Marcellino e Pietro and the sarcophagi in those of San Sebastiano – places that the Azeris visited during their stay.
Last March, a new agreement was signed between Azerbaijan and the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology to restore frescoes in the catacombs of Commodilla, including one on which there is “one of the first representations of Jesus,” explained the Azeri ambassador. His country, he said, is funding another project in St. Peter’s Basilica: the restoration of the altar of St. Leo the Great, an imposing baroque relief in white marble created by Alessandro Algardi recalling the meeting between the ancient pontiff and the Huns’ leader Attila.
A policy of restoring non-Muslim religious buildings that Azeri officials say they are also pursuing in its territory, including Armenian places of worship in the part obtained in 2020 after the war with Armenia.
In recent years, Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken out in favor of peace in the Caucasus. He also visited Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2016, trips during which he advocated for peaceful coexistence between the two neighboring countries.