TBILISI, Georgia - Pope Francis issued a vague rebuke to Russia on Friday and received an unexpectedly warm welcome from the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church as he mixed geopolitics with religion on the first day of a three-day trip to the Caucasus.
During a speech with the Georgian president at his side, Francis insisted on Georgia's "sovereign rights" in a veiled reference to two breakaway regions over which Russia has effective control. Francis backed Georgia's demand that residents who fled during a brief 2008 war with Russia be allowed to return home.
But the appeal was in some ways dwarfed by the surprisingly heartfelt welcome Francis received from Patriarch Ilia II, the ailing Orthodox leader who is the most respected figure in Georgia. Crouched over his cane, Ilia welcomed Francis as "my dear brother."
"May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome," Ilia said in toasting the pope at the Orthodox patriarchate. "May the Lord give a long life to Your Holiness, Pope Francis."
It was a vastly different welcome than in 1999, when St. John Paul II visited Georgia. At that time, Catholic-Orthodox tensions were so high that the Georgian Orthodox Church urged its faithful to stay away from the pope's Mass. Ilia, who has been patriarch since 1977, referred to John Paul as a head of state, not a religious figure, and declined to share his call for improved ecumenical relations.
This time around, Ilia is sending an official delegation to Francis' Mass on Saturday. And on Friday, he stressed the ancient ties of their churches.
"We have lived in brotherly love for 20 centuries. I must say that we also had many problems, but we have overcome those problems with prayers and God's blessing," Ilia said.
Georgian analysts say the turn-around in attitude has nothing to do with personalities but is based on Georgia's geopolitical ambitions. Georgia is anxious to join NATO and is pursuing an eventual membership in the 28-nation European Union. The papal visit is being seen in Georgia as the government's attempt to win allies among Europe's Catholic nations.
Not all in the Georgian church shared Ilia's view, however. A few dozen hard-line Orthodox faithful opposed to Francis' visit demonstrated outside the airport and also outside the Chaldean church where Francis held a peace prayer for the people of Syria and Iraq. The demonstrators toted banners that read: "The Vatican is a spiritual aggressor," and "Death of papism."
But in another sign of warm ties, the Georgian Church defended its decision to host the pope and criticized the protests.
"We would like to stress that we view as unacceptable the negative statements made in public by some men of the cloth of the Georgian Orthodox Church regarding this official visit, and we urge them and everyone to be calm," the Georgian Orthodox Church said in a statement. "The pope is definitely conducting the Mass for Catholics, and we cannot consider this an act of proselytism."
Francis has made a point of engaging as many Orthodox patriarchs as possible, seeking to mount a common Christian front in the face of attacks against Christians by Islamic extremists in the Middle East.
In his remarks upon arrival Friday, Francis never once mentioned Russia or the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. Russia effectively gained complete control over both regions after a brief war with Georgia in 2008. Georgia considers the territories "occupied" and has demanded that the more than 200,000 people displaced by the fighting be allowed to return home.
Francis backed Georgia's call, saying the region's different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups should be allowed to "coexist peacefully in their homeland, or to freely return to that land if for some reason they have been forced to leave it."
"I hope that civil authorities will continue to show concern for the situation of these persons, and that they will fully commit themselves to seeking tangible solutions in spite of any unresolved political questions," he added.
A 2014 U.N. report said authorities in control of South Ossetia and areas around it still don't let ethnic Georgians return to their former homes, apart from one district. The report also spoke of South Ossetia's de-facto authorities detaining Georgians crossing into the areas of their control, such as when farmers go to retrieve stray cattle.
Francis has been outspoken in denouncing the plight of refugees and insisting on their rights to both seek asylum abroad or to return home when security conditions permit. He has used many of his trips to press the point, praying for dead migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and bringing home with him a dozen Syrian refugees from Lesbos, Greece.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili thanked the Holy See for refusing to recognize what he called Russia's "occupation."
Georgia is overwhelmingly Orthodox, and Catholics represent less than 3 per cent of the population. But residents — both Catholic and Orthodox — seemed pleased that Francis' visit showed a united Christian front against Islamic religious extremism.
"I think in the 21st century, when such things are happening in the world, when in many regions Christians face the threat of almost complete annihilation, we should all get united in order to protect peace," said Lali Sadatierashvili, a Catholic who raised in western Georgia, where she had to hide her beliefs during Soviet times. "Pope Francis' visit to Georgia is a call for peace, a call to overcome our differences."
Bachuka Gelashvili, a 50-year-old engineer, waited Friday outside the Kashveti church for the pope's visit.
"Yes, there are people among us Orthodox who are against (the visit) but this is all church internal politics," Gelashvili said. "I am and will remain Orthodox but it should not stop our contacts. We share the same God."
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.
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