The Holy See also called Apostolic see is the Supreme spiritual authority of the Catholic Church, its transnational leadership is under the power, sovereignty, and jurisdiction of the Pope who manages it together with all the diplomatic rights affiliated. It has a legal personality to conclude international transactions and the implementation of international treaties. We could summarize the Holy See as a sovereign authority capable of diplomatic relations with other countries, existing since the beginning of the Church while the Vatican instead became a state only in 1929.
However, in international relations, the Holy See is an actor sui generis. As the Holy See, not Vatican City, is a party to most international agreements, it maintains diplomatic relations, it participates in the work of international organizations and conferences, so only the Holy See is recognized as a subject of international law. The main historical example of the soft power exercised by the Vatican is the pressures which contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the democratization process in central and eastern Europe after 1989.
The foreign policy of the Vatican under Pope Francis had been particularly focused on the relationship with Islam, as witnessed by the document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed in Abi Dhabi with Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb the Grand Imam Al-Azhar, and the recent visit in Iraq.
The Vatican-Azeri axis
The diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Azerbaijan dates back to 1992, just a year after the independence from the Soviet Union, the Vatican was one of the first countries to recognize the newly independent state. The international religious freedom report issued by the United States Department of State classifies Azerbaijan as a full secular country, with a complete separation between State and Religion, protecting the freedom of belief and worship of its citizens. The law also forbids the State to interfere with the religious activities of individuals or groups, except suspected extremism. A general climate of tolerance toward minorities is present in the Azerbaijani society, the 4% out of the 10 million total Azerbaijani population is counted to be part of the non-Muslim religious minority, with an estimated number between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews living in Baku only.
Since regaining its independence, the Republic of Azerbaijan has further developed its relationship with the Holy See as showed by the visit of the national leader Heydar Aliyev to Rome in September 1997 and few years after in 2002 the head of the Catholic Church, John Paul II visited Azerbaijan at the invitation of the President.
Following these visits, the construction of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Baku, and the participation of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of the Holy See at its official opening in 2008, has consolidated the already existing bilateral relations between the two countries. Moreover, a bilateral treaty was established in 2011, recognizing the official judicial status on the presence of the Catholic Church within the Azerbaijani borders, enhancing the Constitutional provisions which protect the right of recognized religious institutions to organize themselves.
Pope Francis has visited Azerbaijan in 2016, being well received and acclaimed in the Shiite majority country while President Ilham Aliyev had been visiting the Vatican in 2020. The meeting resulted a few months later co in the extension of an existing agreement between the Vatican and Aliyev foundation for the restoration of the Commodilla catacombs, an important cemetery site located in the of Rome that will soon be open to the public.
The Heydar Aliyev Foundation is a charitable foundation headed by Azerbaijan's First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva which focuses also on the restoration of artistic heritage around the world. It is considered one of the most powerful instruments of the soft power of the Azerbaijani government.
The cooperation between the Vatican and the Foundation active for a decade allowed the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology to restore numerous pictorial monuments in the catacombs of Saints Marcellino and Pietro and many other artistic reliefs. It is wrong to think that such a relationship is only of functional and cultural nature, it contributed to strengthening bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and the Holy See and enhanced the development of interreligious dialogue. The Vatican by its side seeks the opportunity to enter Nagorno Karabakh to support the reconstruction process and becoming a mediator of peace in a region when Catholics represent the absolute minority.
Already back in 2016, Elkhan Şahinoğlu, head of the non-governmental Atlas research center, commenting the Pope visit to Baku and the rich donations of the Aliyeva foundation to the restoration of the Sistine chapel and different other Churches around Europe, said: “There is more than a bit of realpolitik. The tiny country of the Vatican has enormous influence in the Christian world. And by helping the Vatican with restoration, the leadership of Muslim Azerbaijan hopes for support … from the pope’s side.”
Under the umbrella of Humanitarian cooperation, a new form of exchanges was established with the Pontifical Council for Culture of the Holy See. Due to these agreements, it was possible to hold events dedicated to the Azerbaijani culture inside the Vatican. The concert of Alim Gasimov, Mugam Master at St. Thomas University in April 2010 or the event dedicated to the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Azerbaijan and the Holy See held with the support of Heydar Aliyev Foundation. Or even an exhibition dedicated to the pearls of Azerbaijani culture in November 2012.
The atypical alliance and cooperation between the Vatican and a Muslim majoritarian country give us the example of the real possibility of interfaith dialogue together with the importance of the Holy See as an International player. Even in geographical places where Catholicism plays an exclusive minority role.
Following this case study is possible to analyze the diplomatic role that Pope Francis wanted to carve out for the Pontifical state including a larger involvement as a formal peacekeeper and mediator in belligerent situations. Nevertheless, the idea of such a role is not a prerogative of the current Pontifex. Already in 2003, Pope John Paul II tried in vain to open a channel of communication between Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush to prevent the Second Gulf War.
The south Caucasus represents nowadays an incredible opportunity to test the effectiveness of the Vatican diplomacy and soft power on International affairs. Proving also that despite the presence of strong Catholic communities remains extremely important to exercise the cultural hegemony of the Holy See, is not fundamental to obtain important diplomatic goals.
2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Azerbaijan