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Azerbaijani Catholics' Day in the Sun

There are just 200 practising Roman Catholics in Azerbaijan - but next week they are receiving a visit from the Pope
By Gulnara Mamedzade

When Pope John Paul II visits Baku next week, he will be the guest of a surprised and delighted Roman Catholic community, which is so small that it doesn't have a house fit to put him up in.

Azerbaijan's Catholics have suffered persecution, assimilation and emigration and now number only around 200 people - although accurate estimates are hard to come by. Now, they are playing host to one of the Pope's more unusual trips. He will be in Baku for only 24 hours and - for the first time ever - stay in a hotel.

Irina Orlova-Stroganova is one of the community's survivors. Her grandmother was a Pole, who continued to observe Catholic rituals, despite the atheist Soviet state around her, and insisted that her children spoke Polish at home. Irina's husband, Rostislav, who has aristocratic roots, was christened Orthodox, but finally converted to his wife's faith last year.

Elchin Akhmedov also adopted Catholicism, at the prompting of his wife Svetlana, who is of Polish descent. Firuza Mamedov and Tair Karayev inherited the faith from their mothers, despite non-practicing Azerbaijani fathers - their children now go to church.

The vast majority of the community are made up of these mixed families. It proved impossible to find one family in the city, which was entirely Catholic. Even the wife of the head of the community, Ophel Ismailov, is not of the faith, although she often attends services with her children.

"For me the Catholic community is like a family," said Yelena Sheikh-Zade (her married name). "It is a great source of support for us elderly pensioners. If someone insults us, then it will write an official letter and you feel protected."

The Pope's arrival on May 22, which Azerbaijan's Catholics are awaiting with great excitement, should change all this. Father J

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