default_eblnews.jpg

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.

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.