Staunton, March 7 – At the end of December, a Vatican diplomat indicated that the Holy See wants to work with Russian peacekeepers in Qarabagh to protect Christian churches there. Now, an Azerbaijani delegation has pressed the Vatican to work with Baku on the same issue, setting the stage for a superficially minor but in fact enormously significant diplomatic dispute.
Moscow and the Vatican were in close contact following the end of the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Regnum writer Stanislav Stremidlovsky says, an arrangement that was confirmed by Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, the papal nuncio in Lebanon, who said that the Vatican recognizes Russia’s “important” role in Qarabagh and looked forward to working with it (regnum.ru/news/polit/3208468.html and regnum.ru/news/polit/3155931.html).
But the commitment to work with Russian peacekeepers on this issue, the Regnum commentator says, was not confirmed by more senior Vatican officials, raising the question as to just how the Holy See views Russia’s role and any cooperation with it there, especially since Pope Francis has said that he views the Minsk Group as playing the key role in peacemaking.
The situation was complicated last week, when a delegation of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and representatives of Azerbaijani religious groups visited the Vatican at which time the two sides announced the signing of an accord between the Holy See and Baku concerning the restoration of catacomb churches.
Mehriban Aliyeva, the vice president of Azerbaijan and wife of that country’s president, handed Cardinal Gianfranco Ravazi a letter in which Baku proposed involving Vatican representatives in the work of restoring the historical-cultural heritage of Qarabagh and other liberated territories.
According to Stremidlovsky, this puts the Vatican, Baku and Moscow in a difficult position. The Vatican normally wants to deal with the government of the territory it acts in, but in this case, Moscow is the more dominant player and Vladimir Putin has publicly committed to taking under his personal care churches in Qarabagh.
Moscow cares deeply about maintaining cooperation with the Holy See, and Stremidlovsky believes that the preservation of churches in Qarabagh would best be achieved by “personal dialogue” between Putin and Pope Francis. Baku, which prides itself on its religious tolerance, however, wants the dominant role.
Just how important the Kremlin views any Vatican work in Qarabagh is suggested by the fact that Moscow appears to have inspired Russian Muslim organizations to increase their contacts with the Holy See, apparently having decided that the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church isn’t prepared to do so (regnum.ru/news/polit/3208703.html).