By the time Ali (not his real name) reached Azerbaijan, the most difficult part of his long journey was supposed to be over. He had left his father, wife, and one-year-old son in their village in Afghanistan, trekked across his war-torn country, crossed the Iranian border illegally, and sneaked into Azerbaijan at night.
Taking a train to Baku, he enrolled in university. His hope was to learn enough English to be able find work back in Kabul as a translator or driver. But in Baku, more often than not, Ali found himself missing home and his family. He would wander the capital’s streets at night, staring at the unfamiliar buildings and longing to go home to Afghanistan.
It was then he remembered his brother’s advice: find places where English speakers gather and go there—a library, maybe, or a coffee shop. Instead, Ali, a devout Muslim, started going to the weekly English-language Mass at the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. “At first, I just wanted to improve my English,” he said, “but after one or two times, I was excited to go.”
It was at the church that Ali became friends with an Iraqi businessman who left his country prior to the war that ousted Saddam. He is not able to return to Iraq. Ali also met a group of Fillipino women who are in the church choir, an Indian student, and a Pakistani Christian who had to move to Azerbaijan when neighbors threatened to burn down his house and attack his children. “There are so many people from all over” at the church, Ali said, “I felt at home.”
According to Fr. Josef Marek, one of the priests, the parish has grown from 300 to 500 in the last five years. Glancing around the church on Sundays you can see people from Africa, the Middle East, South America, the United States, and Southeast Asia. With no more than a handful from any one country, no one group dominates and all feel welcome. Some Sundays there is standing room only for the Masses. Members typically say they come because the church community reminds them of home.
Once a Soviet republic, Azerbaijan lies on the Caspian Sea between Iran and Russia. Under the Soviets, religion was banned but Azerbaijanis remained overwhelmingly Muslim. Today, the country is 98 percent Muslim but it prides itself on its religious tolerance. President Ilham Aliyev told the World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in April that Azerbaijan gives “preference to ensuring national and religious tolerance.” But that is not always the case. One member of the church, a Christian from an Armenian family who has been attending for five years, told me he keeps his faith to himself. “They think when you have a cross you are Armenian, and they hate Armenians.” (The two countries have been at war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region for two decades.)
In 2002, a previous president, Heydar Aliyev, invited Pope John Paul II to visit the country. Because the Catholic Church had been outlawed during the Soviet period and owned little property, the pope had to stay at a Baku hotel—the first time in his travels he lodged anywhere other than a religious house. He met a crowd of fifteen hundred at a sports arena, which was decorated with flowers and a makeshift altar. It was then that the president offered local Catholics the land for the new church.
The modern-looking church is situated in a residential neighborhood, not far from the sea. Long before you come to its iron gate, you can see its sandstone tower and the simple iron cross at the top. Inside the church, completed in 2005, a bright blue cross adorns a simple altar.
Ali says that attending the service and hospitality gathering that follows has been a positive experience for him. “When I am in church,” he says, “I am separated from my problems.” But he tells no one about attending, and he worries that if word should somehow get back to Afghanistan, his family might disown him. That’s why, when he runs into university friends on his way back from church, he doesn’t say where he’s been. “I was out walking,” he responds when asked. Then he turns quickly and walks away.