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Pope Francis visits oil-rich Azerbaijan

Pope Francis has arrived in Azerbaijan for a visit aimed at boosting the authoritarian former Soviet republic's multifaith society. Pope Francis is meeting is with religious leaders and President Heydar Aliyev.

Pope Francis received a low-key airport welcome by a government official Sunday, with neither fanfare nor cheering crowds, before being whisked off to celebrate Mass and deliver his Sunday Angelus message in central Baku.

Azerbaijan has a tiny Catholic minority - 570 people, or 0.01 percent of the population, served by a single parish and seven priests, according to Vatican statistics.

A majority Shiite Muslim state, Azerbaijan has become a major oil and gas supplier to Europe. The country is the last leg of a weekend trip to the Caucasus region that included Orthodox Georgia, where he got a mixed reception.

The pope's visit comes a week after the nation's Central Election Commission reported that more than 80 percent of voters backed a constitutional amendment extending the presidential term from five to seven years, granting the president the right to dissolve parliament, creating new vice presidential jobs and canceling age limits.

Checkered rights record

Government critics - as well as rights organizations - say the moves would cement a dynastic rule in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation. The Azerbaijani government has rejected the criticism, saying the amendments would speed up economic reforms.

It's not known whether Francis will press Aliyev on allegations of rampant human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.

What is known is that Francis will celebrate Mass in the Catholic church that was built after St. John Paul II visited Azerbaijan in 2002. After that visit, Aliyev donated a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital, and local Muslims and Jews helped build it.

Azeri media hasn't given much attention to the papal visit and many were unaware of the upcoming Mass. But many of Baku's Muslim residents still welcomed Francis' visit.

jar/rc (AP, dpa)