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.

Related stories

Latest news

Syrian opposition rules out future role for President al-Assad

The Syrian opposition said Friday it would not accept any role for President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the war-torn country, reacting to a recent US shift saying that removing al-Assad is no longer a priority for Washington.

Russian Army integrates breakaway forces of Georgian province

Parts of the small fighting forces of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia have been placed under Russian military control, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday.

Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell beer is now Japanese

Japanese brewing company Asahi completed its takeover of the Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell on Friday, Asahi said in a statement.

Judge approves 25-million-dollar settlement of Trump University case

A US district judge on Friday approved a 25-million-dollar settlement of lawsuits and state fraud allegations against Trump University, the US president's now-defunct business venture.

Former Thai premier Thaksin to junta on reconciliation: 'Cut me out'

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Friday announced that he is not interested in the junta-led reconciliation process, three days after the junta handed him a half-a-billion-dollar tax bill for his past business deal.

Dalic: We welcome possible deal between Agrokor and banks

The government welcomes the possibility of an agreement being concluded between the Agrokor food company and creditor banks, and the bill on vitally important companies is not a fallback plan but the result of the government's care for the overall economic and financial stability of Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic told a press conference in Zagreb on Friday.

Croatia, China sign action plan for cooperation in agriculture

The Croatian and Chinese ministries of agriculture on Friday signed an action plan for cooperation in the field of agriculture for the period 2017-2018, the Croatian ministry said in a statement.

ZSE indices up, Agrokor shares in focus of investor interest

The Zagreb Stock Exchange (ZSE) indices on Friday rose by more than 1.8%, with stocks of the Agrokor food and retail concern being in the focus of investor interest again.

Berlin police defend handling of Berlin market attacker

Berlin police defended themselves on Friday against accusations that they stopped surveillance on Berlin Christmas market attacker despite knowing in June 2016 he was dangerous.

Croatia, creditors tailor emergency measures to save tottering giant

Croatia's tottering retail and food giant Agrokor reached an agreement with its creditors, putting its debts standby and allowing it to continue working during emergency restructuring, the Croatian branch of Austria's Erste Bank said Friday.

Agrokor's creditors say standstill agreement to go into force today

A standstill agreement regarding the Agrokor concern's existing financial obligations to banks will take effect on Friday, additional capital will be injected into the concern in the coming days and the concern will be actively restructured, which includes a change of its management, it was said on Friday after a meeting between Agrokor's suppliers and creditor banks.

Palestinians, UN slam Israel's new settlement plan

Palestinians, Israeli activists and the UN lambasted the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, a day after it gave the go-ahead for the first new West Bank settlement in a quarter of a century.

South Sudan rebels release three abducted foreign oil workers

South Sudanese rebels have released three foreign engineers they abducted in early March in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Mawein Makol Arik said on Friday.

Turkish opposition: Imprisoned party chief has gone on hunger strike

The head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party has launched a hunger strike from prison.

European leagues threaten Champions League schedule clashes

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) on Friday threatened schedule clashes on Champions League matchdays in an ongoing dispute with the governing body UEFA.

Danish court revokes citizenship of IS volunteer

A Danish appellate court on Friday stripped a man of his Danish citizenship for volunteering to fight for the extremist Islamic State in Syria.

Banks and Agrokor agree on key elements of standstill agreement

Member banks of the coordinating committee of financial creditors and representatives of the Agrokor food company have in principle agreed on key elements of a standstill agreement, which is expected to be signed later today, announcing changes in the company's management team, Erste Bank said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Syrian man on trial in Sweden; mosque attack labelled terrorism

A Syrian man went on trial Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, charged with terrorism and arson after an attack last year on a building used as an assembly hall by Shiite Muslims.