.- The Catholic Church has signed an historic treaty with the central Asian state of Azerbaijan which may provide a template for agreements in other countries with a Muslim majority.
“It is very good and very meaningful day. It’s a great day,”Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, the papal nuncio to Azerbaijan, told CNA July 6.
“The Church in Azerbaijan has already been treated very well but now we have a safeguard for the Catholic community here.”
The agreement, signed at the Vatican this morning, gives a secure legal status to the Catholic Church in the Republic of Azerbaijan and guarantees religious freedom.
The Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, said at today’s signing ceremony that “It provides evidence of the respect for a minority religious community shown by a country with a conspicuous Muslim population.” He suggested it was also “an indication of how Christians and Muslims can live together and respect one another.”
Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. It borders Russia to the north and Iran to the south. It gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Although its government is officially secular, its population is 99 percent Muslim. The Catholic population numbers only around 400 people in total.
“At a practical level, things will change as a result of today’s agreement,” explained Archbishop Gugerotti. The Catholic Church and its institutions will now have greater recognition and security in law, he said. That will likely make visas for clergy and religious sisters easier to obtain.
But the nuncio thinks the biggest change will be a symbolic one.
“I think this is an agreement that could well be copied in other parts of the world. It shows broad-mindedness on the part of the Azerbaijani government to recognize that even a small minority can have freedom of religion within the law,” Archbishop Gugerotti said.
A positive relationship between the Holy See and the government of Azerbaijan flourished following the visit of Pope John Paul II to the country in 2002.
During the visit Azerbaijani President Geydar Aliev gave a plot of land to the Church to build a parish, the first in over 70 years. The building was completed in 2007 and opened by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
“Today’s agreement comes at a time when things between Islam and Christianity are tense in other parts of the world. So this agreement is a symbol of how Christians and Muslims can live together in peace,” Archbishop Gugerotti stated.