Pope's Georgia trip starts with appeals for peace, Antichrist signs

Pope Francis received Friday a mixed welcome in Georgia, at the start of a three-day trip to the Caucasus, a fissile post-Soviet region that straddles Europe, Russia and the Middle East, which he is touring to preach tolerance and peace.

At Tbilisi airport, he was met by Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, as a military guard of honour and band, as well as cheering crowd of more than 100 people, saluted him.

However, outside the airport a few dozen civilians and Orthodox priests staged a roadside protest holding placards that read, "Antichrist, stay away from Georgia" and "Vatican is a spiritual aggressor."

The incident did not cloud talks Francis had later with Ilia.

The pope thanked him for the "warm welcome" and said the joint Catholic and Orthodox faith in God "enables us to rise above the misunderstandings of the past, above the calculations of the present and fears for the future."

After warning this week that those behind the shelling in Aleppo "will have to answer to God," Francis also prayed with the local Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic community. Thirteen Chaldean bishops from Erbil, Iraq, came especially for the event.

"Let the people so wearied by bombing experience the joy of your resurrection; free Iraq and Syria from devastation; reunite your dispersed children under your gentle kingship; sustain Christians in the diaspora and grant them the unity of faith and love," he said.

Christianity split between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches in the 11th century, but ecumenical efforts to heal the rift have multiplied in the last 50 years. Georgia is mostly Orthodox, with a 2.5-per-cent Catholic minority, according Vatican estimates.

The Georgian Orthodox church is ultraconservative and tied to the Moscow Patriarchate, which has strained, but improving, relations with the Vatican. Last week, another anti-pope rally was condemned by the local Orthodox leadership.

The pontiff came to Tbilisi in the run-up to October 8 parliamentary elections and, in a speech at the presidential palace, skirted carefully around the most sensitive issue for the country: the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

As a result of a Georgian-Russian war in 2008, the two territories are under Russian occupation, after seceding from Tbilisi in the early 1990s. This has produced a humanitarian crisis, with at least 230,000 ethnic Georgians forcibly displaced.

Francis acknowledged the "great sacrifices" endured by the Georgian people, and said "everyone" should have "the possibility, above all else, to coexist peacefully in their homeland, or freely return to that land, if for some reason they have been forced to leave it."

Without naming Russia, he called for "peaceful coexistence among all peoples and states in the region," based on "mutual self esteem and consideration" and "respect for the sovereign rights of every country within the framework of international law."

Margvelashvili was more blunt about his nation's plight.

"Your Holiness, today you are in a country [...] that nowadays is a victim of foreign aggression: 20 per cent of our territory is occupied and almost 15 per cent of our people have become internally displaced persons," he said.

The Georgian president recalled the upcoming October 3 anniversary of Germany's reunification, and said he hoped Georgia could also be reunited through "international engagement, unity, a firm non-recognition policy and non-aggression."

Francis' pilgrimage continues Saturday with a stadium Mass in Tbilisi, which, in a sign of warming ties, was due to be attended by Georgian Orthodox priests, and with a visit the cathedral of Mtsketa, the spiritual home of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The papal pilgrimage ends Sunday in Azerbaijan, an energy-rich Muslim nation with an authoritarian ruler and a spotty human right record, locked in a conflict over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh with neighbouring Armenia, which Francis visited in June.

Last update: Fri, 30/09/2016 - 17:59

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