Pope Francis wrapped up a two-day visit to Georgia on Saturday after suffering a stinging snub from the local Orthodox church and offering a ringing defence of marriage as "God's most beautiful creation."

He started the day celebrating Mass in Tbilisi's Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, where less than 3,000 of the facility's 27,000 seats were filled.

The Vatican had expected the Georgian Orthodox Church to send a delegation to the Mass, even though the patriarchate announced earlier this week that its clergy could not take part "due to dogmatic differences" dating back to the Middle Ages.

No Orthodox bishops showed up, forcing the pope to tweak a scripted speech that thanked church representatives for attending the service. Instead, Francis extended his thanks to ordinary Orthodox "faithful."

Father Antonio Spadaro, a senior Jesuit journalist who was part of the papal entourage, minimized the incident, recalling that when John Paul II visited Georgia in 1999, local media described the option of attending a Catholic Mass as a "mortal sin."

"We saw nothing like that this time," Spadaro wrote on Twitter.

One Mass attendee, 20-year-old man Tazo Mintiashvili, told dpa: "I am not Catholic, but I came because I am interested in the pope."

Nata Koridze, a 40-year-old woman, added: "We are all Christians."

Georgia, an overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian country of 4.9 million people, has 112,000 Catholics, according to the Vatican. The Georgian government's estimate is almost five times lower, at around 20,000.

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

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

In a separate meeting with the local Catholic community, Francis spelled out that conversion efforts towards the Orthodox were "a big sin against ecumenism" - the term that describes efforts to promote Christian unity.

Francis, seen as progressive on some issues, also used his Georgian visit to defend marriage. He said adultery is inspired by "the devil" and urged anyone tempted to betray their spouse to "seek immediate help."

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics complained about a "world war to destroy marriage" waged with "gender theory," which the Vatican criticizes for offering a more flexible interpretation of a person's gender identity.

Francis visited a Catholic missionaries' centre for the sick and disabled, before closing the day with a solemn ceremony at Svetyskhoveli Cathedral, the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church, with Patriarch Ilia II.

The two elderly leaders, who already had talks Friday, walked in the UNESCO-protected monument hand in hand.

"Our unity lies in true faith," Ilia said, while Francis deplored "the historical divisions which have arisen among Christians" as "true and real lacerations that wound the Lord's flesh."

The papal visit did not attract much media attention in Georgia, a post-Soviet republic locked in a frozen conflict with Russia over secessionist South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The country is mostly focused on parliamentary elections due on October 8.

Francis' tour of the Caucasus ends Sunday in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich Muslim nation with an authoritarian ruler, a Catholic minority even smaller than Georgia's, and another intractable territorial dispute with a neighbour.

Baku is at odds with Armenia, which the pope visited in June, over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Related stories

Pope and Russian Orthodox leader to hold historic meeting

The Great Schism between Catholics and Orthodox

Christians worldwide celebrate Easter

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.