Pope visits Georgia, Azerbaijan with message of peace
VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis is wrapping up a Caucasus pilgrimage that began in June in Armenia and ends this weekend with a visit to two other countries with tiny Catholic communities: the Orthodox Christian bastion of Georgia and the largely Shiite Muslim nation of Azerbaijan.
Given the itinerary, Catholic-Orthodox and Christian-Muslim relations will be high on Francis’ agenda. But geopolitical concerns will also lurk behind the scenes during the three-day trip starting today in Georgia, one of the world’s oldest Christian lands.
For starters, Georgia is keen to use the trip to highlight its European and Western aspirations, and also draw attention to what it considers the Russian “occupation” of the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. Russia effectively gained complete control over both regions after a brief war against Georgia in 2008.
Francis is unlikely to get involved beyond general calls for peace and reconciliation, given a reluctance to offend Russia or the Russian Orthodox Church after his historic meeting with the Russian patriarch in Cuba earlier this year.
The Georgian ambassador to the Vatican, Tamara Grdzelidze, said she wasn’t optimistic Francis would use the term “occupation.”
“But in Armenia he spoke about ‘genocide,’ so you never know with this pope,” she said, referring to the Ottoman-era slaugh- ter of Armenians.
Adding to the geopolitical mix, Francis will make a strong appeal for peace in Syria and Iraq, where Christians are being attacked and driven from their homes by Islamic extremists and where Francis has strongly condemned the recent assault by Russian and Syrian forces on the northern city of Aleppo. A special event is planned today in the Chaldean Catholic church in Tbilisi, just days after Francis warned those responsible for the Aleppo siege “will be held accountable before God.”
“The message is going to be a message of peace,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said.
A more subtle message is one of steadily improving ties between the Holy See and the two former Soviet republics.
Pope Francis, left, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill exchange a joint declaration on religious unity on Feb. 12 at the Jose Marti International airport in Havana, Cuba. Pope Francis is wrapping up a Caucasus pilgrimage that began in June in Armenia and ends this weekend with a visit to two other countries with tiny Catholic communities: the Orthodox Christian bastion of Georgia and the largely Shiite Muslim nation of Azerbaijan.