Interview with Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone
Models of faith and human coexistence
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State, visited Armenia and Azerbaijan from 4 to 9 March . He concluded his visit in Baku with the celebration of Holy Mass in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which he had dedicated three days earlier on 6 March. The following is a translation from Italian of the exclusive interview which the Cardinal on his return granted to L'Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Centre.
Why did the Cardinal Secretary of State visit Armenia and Azerbaijan despite tension in that region?
Armenia and Azerbaijan both have such a wealth of history and religious history that, located as they are on the boundary between Europe and Asia, they attract numerous visitors.
In response to specific invitations from the religious and civil Authorities of these two Nations I had no alternative but to make a visit on behalf of the Pope and with his mandate. Moreover, as we know, Pope John Paul II visited these two regions and inspired great enthusiasm, great support and an indelible memory.
In the speeches you delivered in Armenia and in Azerbaijan, you stressed the importance of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. Can you tell us something about the present situation of the two Countries in this regard?
Armenia is marked by the coexistence of the ancient Armenian Apostolic community and the Armenian Catholic community.
In Azerbaijan a large Muslim community and two small communities, Catholic and Orthodox, live side by side. These are two characteristic countries.
So this means ecumenical dialogue is highly developed in Armenia: we recall the visit to Rome of the Armenian Catholicos Karekin I and the friendly relations of John Paul II with Karekin I and from 2001, with Karekin II.
As for Azerbaijan, let us also remember the relations of Sheik ul-Islam, the great Muslim Leader in the Caucasus, with the Catholic Church and with the Pope himself.
It can therefore certainly be said that the two Countries are emblematic because of the relations between Christian Churches and those between the Catholic Church and the Islamic world; with very different characteristics and connotations, of course, but with a wealth of history that also concerns the origins of Christianity. We know, according to an ancient tradition, that the two Countries were evangelized by the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus.
For instance, in Baku itself, the capital of Azerbaijan, the director of the local historical society showed us the remains of the so-called "tomb of St. Bartholomew". The archaeological remains that testify to an early Christian evangelization are respectfully preserved here, even in a Muslim country.
Let us then remember that it was through these lands that the first great missionaries of the Middle Ages passed, bound for Mongolia and China. We recall the famous caravan route, the Silk Road.
Relations today between the Catholic Church and the Catholicos of Etchemiadzin based in Yerevan are very good and we are expecting Catholicos Karekin II to visit Rome in the near future.
An intense and positive dialogue exists with collaboration and reciprocal esteem; the high esteem — as has already been mentioned — in which Pope John Paul II and today Pope Benedict XVI are held, is undoubtedly indisputable. The Pope's moral authority is recognized and appreciated, as are the relations between Sheykh-ul-Islam Allah Shukur Pasha Zade, the Muslim leader, and the Catholic Church.
This great Muslim religious authority's esteem for the Catholic Church, for the Pope, is high indeed, and has not suffered any decline; in recent times it has also been seen in public discourses to leaders of the Muslim communities of Azerbaijan and of the Caucasus.
You stopped to pray before the monument to the Armenian victims. In what way were they victims?
Unfortunately, there was an endless stream of victims; about one and a half million were killed in 1915. Intervening in defence of the Armenian People that same year, Benedict XV was already speaking of "a people which risked being wiped out". Thus, they were Christians slaughtered because of the outbreak of the persecution that has been defined as the "Great Evil" that struck Armenia and Armenian Christians,
These victims, who are the example of a people's martyrdom at the beginning of the 20th century and who — unfortunately — climbed that calvary of genocides which scarred this century, are deeply venerated. It was therefore only right to bow before these victims and for the Catholic Church to pay them homage, just as John Paul II did.
I must say that I also visited the monument of the victims of the Communist massacre of the Azerbaijanis. As is well known, hundreds of Azerbaijanis were killed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While I paused before the monument that recalls this tragedy, I laid flowers on it as a tribute from the Catholic Church. Heydar Aliyev, President of independent Azerbaijan, is credited with having brought about the most important reforms in the Country.
Now that you have returned to the Vatican, what echoes has your meeting with the Armenian People left in your heart?
First of all, the indelible memory of the piety, of the religious sense of the Armenian People. This memory also becomes a prayer that in turn becomes a communion of intentions and collaboration in the ecumenical and interreligious fields; it is a memory that sets before the eyes — visually too, not only through having studied history and maps — the faces of so many people, members of both the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Catholic Church.
You have described Azerbaijan as a model of interreligious coexistence. Can this model of dialogue be imitated?
In Azerbaijan I saw in practice the esteem enjoyed by the small Churches — the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. There are about 390 or perhaps 400 Catholic faithful. It is a model of coexistence because Heydar Aliyev, the President I mentioned, for example, with the consent of the Muslim Sheik, offered a plot of land on which to rebuild the Catholic community's church that had been destroyed under the Communist regime.
This is a sign of respect for other religions, both by the political authorities and by the Muslim religious authorities of Azerbaijan. It is admirable, and recognizable in it are the features of a society that is modern and secular, but acknowledges the public value of religion for development and for peaceful coexistence in a political community.
Thus, in my opinion, this model can be imitated or I would even say exported, of course with peaceful means, for otherwise we should be infringing upon the principle of freedom. It deserves to be imitated because there is no question of mere "tolerance" in the negative sense: for tolerance can have negative connotations as if it were an attitude imposed. Here it is a matter of a positive tolerance that helps other religions also to express themselves publicly, such as building the church in Azerbaijan and the social work the Catholic Church carries out.
I have seen this positive tolerance, for example, in the community of Mother Teresa's Sisters who have set up a care centre to gather the homeless, and the Sisters are esteemed and respected by the Authorities and naturally by the Azerbaijani People.
The number of Catholics in Azerbaijan does not even amount to 400. Does this small community have any future?
For the time being it is a community that lives its faith intensely and prays. On the occasion of the inauguration of the new Catholic church, a choir of non-Catholics, non-Christians, a choir of Azerbaijanis — the Philharmonic Choir of Baku, accompanied by the Orchestra — sang a very beautiful "Ave Maria" in Latin and in Azerbaijani.
It is in this way that high regard for the Catholic community and, I would say, the attraction of the Catholic community, its prayers, its traditions — the tradition of devotion to Our Lady. the Mother of Jesus —, exert their influence.
There is also respect for this community linked to the "Great Church": it is a "little flock", as Jesus says in the Gospel, a small community but closely bound to the great Catholic hence, universal — Church and to the Holy See, to the moral authority of the Pope who is held in high esteem.
Further, she is a Church which proposes. She proposes the proclamation of Christ with respect and observes, naturally, the rules of life of the Muslim community, but day after day is acquiring an increasingly greater reputation and respect and perhaps in the future might even increase in size.
In this regard, I would like to recall the praiseworthy commitment of the Salesians from Slovakia who care for the Catholic community and further the work I have just mentioned.
Does this religious minority have a useful lesson to teach countries with a Catholic majority and an ancient Catholic tradition?
Basically, I would say the need to keep one's identity intact in a form that proposes rather than imposes, and then the penury that distinguishes these little communities which do not have the great structures of countries with a long-standing Christian tradition but stand out for the credibility of the profession of their faith.
They are not afraid to profess their faith publicly and are thought well of because they know how to pray. Many people, even non-Christians or those who have not been baptized, sometimes participate in their prayer services.
Therefore, one must not be afraid of presenting and proposing one's own identity, but it is essential to retain an attitude of great respect for other religions, for dialogue and collaboration, especially on the fundamental values of human coexistence.
Do you cherish a particular aspect of your journey to Armenia and Azerbaijan?
Without a doubt. I can no longer live my life — or my dreams — without reminders of these two great realities. Nor can I offer my daily prayers without invoking the Lord's help for these communities, for the people I met, their faces, their roles in the difficult situation of both these Countries; without taking their history into account, too. This history, as I said, is very densely packed and steeped in Christian memories.
We believe that the first centuries of Azerbaijan's life were interwoven with signs of the activity of the early Christians, a living Christian community that professed its faith and was perhaps even evangelized by the Apostles or by the first disciples of the Apostles.
The Lord Jesus is the Lord of history also in these Countries where Christians are now a little flock, but we must nevertheless be sure that every temporal section of the history of every nation can be crucial, not only for the history of the specific nation but also for the history of humanity.
In Armenia and in Azerbaijan, as in all the surrounding countries, there is a sort of interweaving of complexities, of beauty, of memories, an ethnic mosaic but also a mosaic of influences from the distant past that continue to affect the present and perhaps also to build a future that we hope will be better and better. A future of peaceful co-existence, a future of brotherhood.
Weekly Edition in English
9 April 2008, page 5
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