BAKU (AP)–Soldiers in dark-green camouflage snapped their bayonets at the Martyrs’ Lane cemetery Tuesday–practicing drills for the arrival of Pope John Paul II–who is to visit this site the start of his two-day trip to this Muslim country.
Most of the hundreds of rows of black–granite tombstones are for those killed in fighting during the civil war in Nagorno-Karabakh–an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.
A cease-fire ended the fighting there in 1994–but a stalemate continues–and John Paul’s visit–which starts Wednesday–is raising hopes that he could be a voice for peace in the conflict that has left 30,000 dead and more than a million people homeless.
"Of course all the young people still have hope for peace – you see how many dead we have here," said Ilgar–a worker at the memorial who declined to give his last name.
Recent months have seen growing numbers of opposition protests in Azerbaijan–focused on President Heydar Aliev’s rule and his handling of Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict ended with 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory becoming a de-facto part of Armenia.
Isa Gambar–the head of a leading opposition party–says the papal visit will be a positive event for the entire country–but he doubts the pontiff will bring any movement in Nagorno-Karabakh.
"It doesn’t pay to have overly large hopes the pope’s visit will help normalize the conflict that will in the end be disappointed," he said.
The head of the tiny Roman Catholic community here of 150 parishioners – half of them foreigners – said the pope wouldn’t take on the role of a peacemaker in the conflict but that the church will try and do what it can. "We pray that this conflict comes to an end and that the church can help with this," Father Daniel Pravda said.