May 22, 2002

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) - Stooped, slow and unsteady, Pope John Paul II began a visit to this Muslim nation Wednesday, determined to pursue peace ``as long as I have breath'' but reading just a few lines of his speeches and staying seated most of the time.

The five-day trip to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria was the start of a trying travel period for John Paul, who turned 82 on Saturday and appears increasingly frail. ``It is what you see,'' said the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, when asked about John Paul's health on the flight from Rome. The pope's speech is slurred and his hands tremble - symptoms of Parkinson's disease - and he walks with difficulty because of knee and hip ailments.

As it often has since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, the pope's agenda in this former Soviet republic included a condemnation of fundamentalism, calls for religious tolerance and an appeal that violence must never be carried out in the name of religion.

At the presidential palace, the pope spoke in heavily slurred, barely audible Russian before turning over most of the rest of his speech to a priest to read, including a passage underlining his intention to continue his papacy, now in its 24th year.

``I have come to Azerbaijan as an ambassador of peace. As long as I have breath within me I shall cry out: `Peace, in the name of God,'' the passage said. Navarro-Valls called it a ``reconfirmation'' of John Paul's recent affirmations that he is staying on the job.

The spokesman brushed aside questions about John Paul's reaction to statements by two influential cardinals last week that he would consider resigning if his health no longer allowed him to carry out his mission, saying: ``He reads the newspapers.''

For the first time in papal travel, John Paul used a mobile lift when boarding his Alitalia plane in Rome and getting off in Baku to spare him the stairs. At the Vatican, aides now wheel him around on a platform.

With only 120 Roman Catholics in a nation of 7.5 million people, according to Vatican statistics, Azerbaijan has the smallest Catholic community of any country the pope has visited.

``He's a friend of Muslims, our God is the same,'' said Nigar Garulla, a music school teacher who came to see John Paul at the presidential palace.

President Geidar Aliev, a former communist, hopes the visit puts attention on the country's conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave. A cease-fire ended fighting in 1994 after some 30,000 people were killed and more than a million people fled their homes.

``These people are in need of your kind words, they seek your consolation,'' the president told John Paul, who visited mainly Christian Armenia last September.

Shortly after arriving in Baku, John Paul prayed at the Martyrs' Lane cemetery, where most of the hundreds of rows of black granite tombstones are for those killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting.

John Paul was helped from his car, stood for about 45 seconds, then sat in a white wooden chair. About 200 people stood in front of a nearby mosque, holding white and yellow Vatican flags and shouting ``Papa, Papa,'' the Russian word for pope.

Later, John Paul was presented with a wooden cross said to be from Nagorno-Karabakh.

On Thursday, John Paul will celebrate a Mass in an indoor sports arena and meet with Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox representatives to deliver his message of religious tolerance. In the afternoon he leaves for Bulgaria.

The papal spokesman confirmed that John Paul will travel in July to Canada, Mexico and Guatemala. He is to visit his native Poland in August.

Asked if John Paul, after a trying year that has seen his church rocked by sex abuse cases, was happy to leave the Vatican, Navarro-Valls said, ``he always likes to travel for many reasons.''

He quoted the pope telling aides on the plane, ``Once again I've forced you to travel.''

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