Pope preaches in largely empty sta­dium

Malta Independent - - WORLD -

Pope Fran­cis has said Mass in a largely empty sta­dium on a visit to Ge­or­gia af­ter the ma­jor­ity Or­tho­dox Chris­tian Church asked fol­low­ers to stay away.

Or­tho­dox be­liev­ers were asked not to take part in Roman Catholic ser­vices and a Church del­e­ga­tion due to at­tend also stayed away.

But Church of­fi­cials said the de­ci­sion had been taken by mu­tual agree­ment.

It was one of the small­est crowds seen at an out­door pa­pal Mass dur­ing Fran­cis’s for­eign trips.

Peo­ple who did at­tend in the cap­i­tal Tbil­isi said af­ter­wards that the pa­pal visit was good for Ge­or­gia.

“This is a very sig­nif­i­cant event, both for the coun­try and for faith­ful from the whole Catholic parish,” Keti Khi­tarikhvili told Reuters news agency.

“He is a true pope, he is not just a re­li­gious fig­ure, but also a very po­lit­i­cal fig­ure. Be­cause I think that with this visit, the role of Ge­or­gia will be raised mea­sur­ably on the world stage.”

With a Roman Catholic pop­u­la­tion of un­der 1%, it was not an ob­vi­ous des­ti­na­tion but the Pope has made a point of reach­ing out to Or­tho­dox churches to over­come doc­tri­nal dif­fer­ences which split the two com­mu­ni­ties in the 11th Cen­tury.

The late Pope John Paul II vis­ited Ge­or­gia in 1999, and he was treated as the Vatican head of state, rather than a re­li­gious leader.

Ge­or­gia, a small coun­try (pop­u­la­tion 4.3 mil­lion) in the Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains, shares an Or­tho­dox cul­ture with the re­gional su­per­power, Rus­sia, but the two fought a brief war in 2008.

Vatican at­tempts to mend ties with the Rus­sian Church have so far not re­sulted in a pa­pal visit there. On the other hand, Ge­or­gia as­pires to join the EU and Nato.

Ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press, only a few thousand peo­ple at­tended the Mass in the Meshki sta­dium, which has a ca­pac­ity of 25,000.

The Or­tho­dox pa­tri­ar­chate said on its web­site: “As long as there are dog­matic dif­fer­ences be­tween our churches, Or­tho­dox be­liev­ers will not par­tic­i­pate in their prayers”.

One Ge­or­gian priest told AP it was a protest against Catholic at­tempts to con­vert Or­tho­dox Chris­tians.

“Can you imag­ine how it would be if a Sunni [Mus­lim] preacher came to Shia [Mus­lim] Iran and con­ducted prayers in a sta­dium or some­where else?” Fa­ther David Klividze asked. “Such a thing could not be.”

None­the­less, the Church leader, Pa­tri­arch Ilia, had wel­comed Pope Fran­cis on Fri­day as his “dear brother” and toasted him say­ing “May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome”.

Ge­or­gian Pres­i­dent Ge­orgy Margve­lashvili did at­tend the Mass. Other politi­cians may have stayed away be­cause of forth­com­ing elec­tions, for fear of up­set­ting devout vot­ers.

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