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Azerbaijan Inaugurates 1st Catholic Church. Cardinal Bertone Presides at Ceremony
BAKU, Azerbaijan, MARCH 9, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The peaceful coexistence of various religions is the rock upon which civilization depends, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said when inaugurating the first Catholic Church in Azerbaijan.
The Pope's secretary of state said this Friday in Baku at the dedication ceremony of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, an event he said is "rich in meaning," and "will leave its mark in the annals of history."

"Almighty God, after a period of atheistic persecution and violence, allows us to realize a concrete sign of spiritual and moral rebirth," the Vatican representative said.

"A church is a place where the community that God brings together for the praise and celebration of his love comes," said the cardinal, but it is also "the image of that living edifice that is the Church herself, [...] community and family made up of individual believers, who celebrate the true rite that is pleasing to God, living consistently with their own faith."

Cardinal Bertone thanked Azerbaijan's president, IIham Aliyev, who attended the ceremony, for the country's commitment to promote "an authentic religious tolerance in a land […] marked by the vocation of an ancient and consolidated cosmopolitanism, which has enriched it with various contributions."

"Civilization rests on a rock that is concrete -- the serene coexistence of different religions," he observed.

Gift

The church was built on land donated to Pope John Paul II by President Heydar Aliyev, father of the nation's current head of state, on the eve of the Pontiff's visit to the country in 2002.

"It was the most eloquent welcome," the Vatican secretary of state said of the gift. "It was proof of this desire to make religious tolerance a true pillar of the life of Azerbaijan."

Heydar Aliyev's commitment was continued by his son, said the cardinal, "with tenacity and passion," as is demonstrated by the "subsequent donation of space on which he wanted a homeless shelter to be built that would be entrusted to the loving care of the sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta."

Cardinal Bertone also thanked the chairman of the Caucasian Muslims Office, Sheykh-ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazadeh, for his presence, and recalled his "irreplaceable role of support and promotion" in building the church. He also thanked other religious leaders of Azerbaijan, who are witnesses "in an explicit way of the undeniable value that they attribute to religious tolerance."

The cardinal made special mention of Father Jan Capla and his Salesian companions who serve the Catholic community in Baku. "I never would have imagined that I, a member of the Salesians, would come have come here as secretary of state, to pay homage at this altar, where the relics of the great Salesian saints -- John Bosco, Maria Domenica Mazzarello and Dominic Savio, among others -- have been brought together."

Wait is over

Addressing the faithful who were present, he recalled how "the sufferings that you have born are now amply repaid by the joy that I see on your faces."

Cardinal Bertone continued: "Many of you have waited for decades to be able to pray in a church of your own. You waited to be able to listen to the proclamation of the word of God and to receive the sacraments of salvation. That day has finally arrived.

"The nuncio told me with what emotion and with what pride you pronounced your names before the altar of the Lord, some very advanced in age, in the act of receiving the sacraments of Christian initiation. May God be thanked!"

"Dear Catholics of Azerbaijan," said the cardinal, "answer those who ask you the reason for your hope that is in you with your exemplary life. And may this noble land be proud of your contribution of humanity, lover, honesty, industriousness, love for the poor and the suffering."