- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2002

BAKU, Azerbaijan Pope John Paul II asked religious leaders "to reject all violence as offensive to the name of God" as he arrived yesterday in the mostly Muslim ex-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

The pope's visit to this country with a tiny Roman Catholic community of about 150 comes at the invitation of President Geidar Aliev, who has expressed hopes for Vatican intervention in the stalemate with neighboring Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The trip is seen as more political than religious, although a Mass is planned today at a sports arena.

For the first time, a special movable platform was used to carry the pope from the door of his Alitalia plane to the tarmac at the Baku airport so that he wouldn't have to use stairs. A richly woven traditional Azerbaijani carpet was laid out on the ground.

Two cardinals last week said they thought the pope would resign if his health deteriorated to the point that he could no longer govern the church. The pontiff turned 82 on Saturday.

The pope, slowed by the symptoms of Parkinson's disease and knee and hip ailments, has made clear he has no intention of stepping down or stopping the trips that have been the hallmark of his 24-year papacy.

"Here at the gateway to the East, not far from where armed conflict continues to prevail, cruelly and senselessly I ask religious leaders to reject all violence as offensive to the name of God, and to be tireless promoters of peace and harmony," the pope said at the airport.

A few minutes into his Russian-language speech, the pope stepped aside and an aide finished reading it.

Mr. Aliev, who greeted the pope backed by an honor guard and military band, said: "Your visit to countries where Islam is widespread, including Azerbaijan, serves peace and mutual confidence between two big, worldwide religions."

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