Pope Francis visited Azerbaijan on Sunday, addressing the Catholic faithful and reaching out to Muslim people in the second largest Shiite Muslim nation.
The pope spoke to religious leaders at a mosque in the capital city of Baku, and celebrated Mass with Azeri Catholics, who make up less than 1 percent of the country’s population. A 2015 state department report on religious freedom around the world cited Azerbaijan’s tightening of restrictions on some religions, including Christian denominations such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as cause for concern about religious discrimination.
NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli reports the pope visited Georgia to address Orthodox Christians before he stopped in Azerbaijan, but that he was “met with loud protests by orthodox hardliners” in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
About 84 percent of Georgia’s population is Orthodox Christian. Although the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, agreed to meet with the pope during his visit, so few people showed up for Mass in a Tbilisi stadium, most of the seats were empty.
Sylvia reports for NPR’s newscast unit:
“The highlight of the trip so far was off-the-cuff remarks the pope made to Georgia’s small catholic community. In response to a question, Francis said, ‘There is a global war trying to destroy marriage… not with weapons but with ideas.’ He said the great enemy of marriage is gender theory and ‘we have to defend ourselves from ideological colonization.’
“Francis has used that expression before to criticize what he says are rich countries’ attempts to link development aid to the acceptance of social policies such as contraception and gay marriage.”
In a 2015 speech in the Philippines, Pope Francis told tens of thousands of people gathered in a Manila arena “God calls upon us to recognize the dangers threatening our own families and to protect them from harm,” adding “We must be attentive to the new ideological colonization,” according to an English transcript of his speech published by official Vatican Radio.
The pope went on to explain his choice of words:
“Beware of the new ideological colonization that tries to destroy the family. It’s not born of the dream that we have from God and prayer – it comes from outside and that’s why I call it a colonization.
“Let us not lose the freedom to take forward the mission God has given us, the mission of the family. And just as our peoples were able to say in the past ‘No’ to the period of colonization, as families we have to be very wise and strong to say ‘No’ to any attempted ideological colonization that could destroy the family.”
In his homily on Sunday, the pope did not focus on the family as he spoke to Azerbaijan’s Catholics. “Here,” he said, “the faith, after the years of persecution, has accomplished wonders,” and delivered a message about the duty of the faithful to serve. “Stay united always, living humbly in charity and joy; the Lord, who creates harmony from differences, will protect you,” he said.