TBILISI: Pope Francis on Saturday called for Christian unity as he visited the seat of Georgia’s ancient Orthodox Church on the second day of his peace mission to the volatile Caucasus region.
The pontiff and Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Church, linked arms as they entered the 11th-century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral to the sound of bells chiming and a choir performing polyphonic chants.
Earlier on Saturday, the pope held an open-air mass for thousands of faithful in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, offering worshippers the “consolation that we need amid the turmoil we experience in life”.
On Friday, the pontiff called for peaceful “coexistence” in the conflict-ridden ex-Soviet region at the start of a three-day tour that will also take him to Azerbaijan just months after he visited its arch-foe Armenia.
Tiny Orthodox Georgia — one of the world’s oldest Christian nations — fought a brief war with Moscow in 2008, and two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are under what it insists is a de facto Russian occupation.
Many Georgians hope that the Pope’s visit — billed by the Vatican as a peace mission — will highlight the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Georgians who have been left refugees.
“Parts of my country are under occupation and the Pope’s message of peace is very important,” Manana Itonishvili, a 56-year-old arts history professor who attended the mass, told AFP.
As he arrived in Georgia on Friday, the Pope spoke of the need for refugees to return to their homes and called for respect for national sovereignty, but he seemed to dodge potential Russian ire by refusing to use the word “occupation”.
Apparently wary of irritating the Kremlin and Russia’s powerful Orthodox Church, he only made general calls for “respect of sovereign prerogatives of all countries within the framework of international law”.
The Georgian Orthodox Church, one of several distinct Eastern Orthodox Churches that also include the Greek and Russian Churches, has doctrinal differences with the Roman Catholic Church.