Sui Iuris:  The Saint Mary of Baku | Photo Story // How Catholics live in Azerbaijan

  08 July 2024    Read: 678
  Sui Iuris:   The Saint Mary of Baku |  Photo Story  // How Catholics live in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan has historically been and still is a home for various religious communities with different religious denominations operating in the country. The Church of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception, a magnificent construction in the center of the city, is one of the many worship places in Azerbaijan. 

The neo-Gothic design of the church is penned by the Italian architect Ruggeiro, while local sculptors created a statue of Mother Mary at the entrance of the church, built for a congregation of 200.

Catholic monasteries, missions, and schools functioned in the major cities of the country in the 17th-18th centuries, while Catholicism began to spread in Azerbaijan as early as the Middle Ages. More Catholics moved to Baku, breathing a new life into the Catholic Church in Azerbaijan, during the oil boom of late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Apostolic Prefecture of Azerbaijan is a unit equal to Roman Catholic Church diocese. It has a sui iuris (of one’s own right) status, operating with the rights and powers of a diocese. The head (ordinary) is called the Apostolic Prefect from the moment of their appointment.

Vicar General Fr. Joseph Marek, representative of the Apostolic Prefecture of the Catholic Church of the Republic of Azerbaijan spoke to about the church, the core Christian beliefs and practices, the situation of Christian communities, religious tolerance, and multiculturalism in Azerbaijan.

‘Everyone knows how much Joseph Stalin disliked religious monuments’, Marek started, ‘which also affected the Catholic Church. The magnificent church dedicated to Mother Mary was built in Baku in late 1930’s, which was then destroyed by the Bolshevik regime. Independence in Azerbaijan marked the beginning of much better days. Without a Catholic temple under the Soviet rule, Catholics attended the Russian Orthodox churches. Yet, this was not enough as they required places of worship and leaders who could run the religious rites.’

Pope John Paul II visited Baku on 23 May 2002 and celebrated the Holy Mass at Baku Sports Palace on the second day of his stay. It was during the same visit that Heydar Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, allocated a plot to the Catholic community in Azerbaijan to build a church. Six years later, on 7 March 2008, the community attended the official opening ceremony of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Vicar General still vividly remembers the day Pope John Paul II was welcomed in Azerbaijan 22 years ago:

‘I was astonished, so much so that I asked several people of the reason for such a nice welcome. It was their turn to be surprised, as they all replied that the visitor was a holy person. I found it simply amazing. People had great respect and sympathy for representatives of other religions!’

Azerbaijan has not only managed to preserve, but also multiply its confessional variety. Apart from faith, morality, and law, religion is also viewed as a pillar of security and stability among society. 

‘Unfortunately, there are always individuals who act in personal interests under the banner of religion. Hatred and anger in one’s heart lead to heavy consequences. Regardless of religion, one should always search for the truth with all their heart. I stand against words that contradict the beauty of this world, our future, happiness, comfort, and beliefs. The truths in our hearts must find a way to the people before us through words. Every human heart is on a quest for and crave for the truth. Truth only can quench one’s spiritual thirst. And only through searching for the truth can one truly practice their faith’, Vicar Marek continued.

The priest is also fascinated by the warmth of the Azerbaijanis in his 20 years in Baku: ‘What I like most is how much respect people have for the individual and one’s faith. They embrace and respect people for who they are. People do not only hold in high esteem the traditional spirituality based on Islamic values, but also other religions and worldviews. Both Catholics and other Christians can live and practice their faith freely here. Representatives of various confessions coexist peacefully in Azerbaijan.’

Joseph Marek says one’s religion has never been an obstacle to find one’s place in society in Azerbaijan: ‘There are some places in the world where you can never speak of sin, angels, God, or religion. Azerbaijan is an exception. People of Azerbaijan have always welcomed Jews, Christians, Muslims to live in harmony and prosper together. We feel comfortable while building dialogue with representatives of other religions and understand each other.’

The Vicar believes that religious organizations that boast great creative potential must help strengthen society and banish destructive false religious trends. We must always strive for growing the congregation of believers, as God always saves those who obey His commandments and remain devoted to the truth.

‘Being in Azerbaijan and communicating with a tolerant society is God’s grace. I have never prayed to God to be somewhere. Our Creator has bestowed this place upon me. God has chosen Azerbaijan as my path to eternity. I feel at home here. This truly is my home, where I live and feel happy’, Marek concluded.


Ilkin Najafov


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