GEORGIA BELIEF POPE.jpg
Pope Francis (C) waves upon his arrival for a holy mass at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia, 01 October 2016.
Photograph: EPA/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE

Pope Francis celebrated Mass in a Tbilisi stadium on Saturday that was attended by a few thousand people and deserted by the leadership of the Georgian Orthodox Church, in a surprise snub to the Vatican.

Named after a 1950s and 1960s Georgian football superstar, the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium has a capacity of more than 27,000, but looked to be filled with less than 3,000 people, its multicoloured stands largely empty.

Georgia is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian. According to the Vatican, it has 112,000 Catholics, or 2.5 per cent of the population, but the Georgian government's estimate is almost five times lower, at around 20,000.

"Little and beloved flock of Georgia, who are so committedto works of charity and education, receive the encouragement of the Good Shepherd, trust in the One who takes you on his shoulders and consoles you," Francis said in a homily.

The Vatican expected the Georgian Orthodox Church to send a delegation, even if a statement earlier this week from the local Patriarchate said its clergy could not take part in Catholic services "due to dogmatic differences" dating back to the Middle Ages.

In the end, no Orthodox bishops showed up, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed. Their presence would have been another outreach gesture after a friendly meeting Francis had with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II on Saturday.

Closing Mass, the pontiff strayed from a scripted speech, thanking ordinary Orthodox "faithful," rather than official church representatives, for attending the service. Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili was also present.

"I am not Catholic, but I came because I am interested in the pope, we like Franciscus," Tazo Mintiashvili, a 20-year-old man, told dpa, using Francis' Latin name. "We are all Christians," Nata Koridze, a 40-year-old woman, added.

The Georgian Orthodox church is ultraconservative and tied to the Moscow Patriarchate. Both have strained, but improving, relations with the Vatican, as part of slow-moving efforts to heal the 1,000-year-old Orthodox-Catholic split.

Fringe nationalist groups, supported by hardline Orthodox priests, have staged several protests against the pope's visit, depicting him as an "Antichrist" and a "spiritual aggressor," but they have been condemned by the Georgian Patriarchate.

Later Saturday, Francis was scheduled to have another meeting with Ilia II at Svetyskhoveli Cathedral, a UNESCO-protected monument in Mtskheta, 22 kilometres north-west of the capital, considered the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Local media in Georgia, a post-Soviet state locked in a frozen conflict with Moscow over secessionist South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have devoted little attention to the pope, focusing instead on October 8 parliamentary elections.

Francis' trip is part of a three-day pilgrimage to the Caucausus area, which straddles Europe, Russia and the Middle East, focused on peace and religious tolerance. The pope already toured the region in June, when he visited Armenia.

The journey ends Sunday in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich Muslim nation with an authoritarian ruler, a spotty human rights record and a long-standing territorial dispute with Armenia over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh.

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