September 29, 2016 - 10:12 AM
VATICAN CITY - 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 Friday 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 slaughter 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 Friday 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.
When St. John Paul II visited Georgia in 1999 to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Catholic-Orthodox tensions were so high that the Georgian Orthodox Church urged its faithful to stay away from his Mass. Relations are still strained, unlike the Vatican's more friendly relations with other Orthodox churches.
But the Vatican says an official delegation from the Orthodox patriarchate will attend Francis' Saturday morning Mass, a not-insignificant ecumenical development.
Monsignor Giuseppe Pasotto, the Catholic bishop of Tbilisi, said Georgian Patriarch Ilia had told him he was ready to greet the pope "in great joy."
"For Georgia's Catholics and personally for me, the papal visit is a great event," said Tako Peikrishvili, a 27-year-old from the village of Aral in southern Georgia's mountains.
Not all are welcoming the visit, however — evidence that the 1,000-year schism between Catholic and Orthodox is still keenly felt.
Last week, a few dozen protesters from the conservative group "Union of Orthodox Parents" demonstrated outside the Vatican's embassy in Tblisi, a sign of lingering suspicions of perceived Catholic expansion in Orthodox lands and resentment of ecumenical efforts by the Georgian church.
Ilia's office issued a statement Wednesday calling the protest "unacceptable" and urging all Georgians to be peaceful during Francis' visit.
David Tinikashvili, a Georgian Orthodox theologian, noted that historically, the Georgian Orthodox Church didn't harbour antagonistic attitudes toward Rome. Even Patriarch Ilia, who was elected in 1977, initially supported the ecumenical movement, allowing Catholic and Anglican pastors to participate in Orthodox Church services, he said.
"But this changed, sadly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union when ethnic nationalism began to grow," he said.
Ramaz Sakvarelidze, an independent political analyst in Tbilisi, said the papal visit should help to underscore Georgia's aspirations for greater Western integration, including its sought-after membership in the European Union and NATO.
"The visit will certainly have a positive impact on Georgia's image, it will help underline its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and a desire to embrace the principles of the Western world," he said.
After Georgia, Francis heads to Azerbaijan, completing the visit he had hoped would have begun in Armenia and ended in Azerbaijan to show a symbolic bridge between neighbours bitterly divided over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, but since a separatist war ended in 1994, it has been under the control of forces that claim to be local ethnic Armenians but that Azerbaijan claims include regular Armenian military.
While in Armenia in June, Francis called for reconciliation and for all sides to "resist being caught up in the illusory power of vengeance."
"I will also say that not making peace on account of a small patch of land — because that is all it is — is something grim," he said then.
Francis will spend only about 10 hours in the Azeri capital of Baku, using the time to highlight the country's interfaith mix, meeting with the sheik of Caucasus Muslims, as well as representatives of Azeri Jews and other religious communities.
And he will celebrate Mass for the Catholic community which represents less than 1 per cent of the population: There are about 200 Azeri-born Catholics and about 15,000 Catholic foreigners who live in Baku.
Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia contributed to this report.
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News from © The Associated Press, 2016