Pope vis­its Ge­or­gia, Azer­bai­jan with mes­sage of peace

Marysville Appeal-Democrat - - FAITH -

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.

As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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