A Caspian visit

May 26, 2002

WHEN POPE John Paul II left Baku, Azerbaijan, he left behind a dreamily decrepit city of illusion on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Baku boasts a dense core of medieval Persian vintage, surrounded by a once exuberant art nouveau metropolis - a falling-apart, century-old stage set of grand windows and curvaceous balconies supported by undraped statuary, all built by oilmen with names like Rothschild and Nobel.

In Baku, young men sip tea with lime and shoot pool outdoors, under acacia trees by the seashore. The mood of the city was caught in a 1937 novel, Ali and Nino, by a Jewish refugee who took the name Kurban Said. It's about a Muslim young man and a beautiful Christian girl, an Asian and a European, who love and die in the time of revolution. Baku is where Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires came together, where a world of family and honor met a world of oil and ideology; the fault lines can still be traced. That's why the pope came.

Azerbaijan has just 120 Catholics. Religious freedom is iffy, and the entire nation is in the grip of post-Soviet tyranny and despair. A quarter of the country's people are living as refugees, victims of a disastrous war against Armenia that the rest of the world has largely forgotten.

The pope, 82, wants to mend relations with Islam. He also wants to see Russia before he dies, but the Orthodox church there deeply mistrusts the Vatican. Baku was a sidestep on the road to Moscow.

Pope John Paul's inner steel was tempered by the era of communism. Now that's past. He's preaching a final message of reconciliation - with the Eastern world, with the Orthodox world, with those made miserable by war and the men who relish it. It's a bigger job than he can accomplish. But Baku was a natural place to keep at it, a city where for untold years cultures have crossed, and left behind a legacy of pain and beauty.

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