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Francis plays the diplomat in Georgia in front of president and diplomats

30 September 2016 | by Christopher Lamb

Pope steers delicate path between importance of Georgian sovereignty and a relationship with Russian orthodox

Pope Francis walked a diplomatic tightrope when he arrived in Georgia today by stressing the importance of each country’s sovereignty while avoiding outright criticism of Russia, which has troops on the ground in two Georgian territories. 

In a carefully worded address to diplomats, civil authorities and the country’s president, the Pope stressed the need for a “just and stable relationship between states” in the volatile Caucasus region, a part of the world riddled with military conflicts. 

“This requires increasing mutual esteem and respect which can never lay aside the sovereign rights of countries,” Francis explained in a speech delivered after having a private meeting with President Giorgi Margvelashvili. “In far too many areas of the world, there seems to be a dominant way of thinking which hinders keeping legitimate differences and disagreements – which can always arise – within a climate of civilised dialogue.”

He added: “This is all the more necessary in the present historical moment, with no shortage of violent extremism that manipulates and distorts civic and religious principles, and subjugates them to the dark designs of domination and death.”

Relations between Russia and Georgia - a former satellite state of the Soviet Union - have long been tense with Kremlin troops occupying the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following a brief 2008 war between the two countries. The Vatican has traditionally been supportive of Georgia’s sovereignty but during his papacy Francis has worked hard to improve relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, securing an historic meeting with its patriarch early this year.  Developing this relationship, however, requires not upsetting the Kremlin which is hand-in-glove with the orthodox church - as a result, the Pope has been accused of not doing enough to criticise the Russian intervention in to the Ukraine. 

Keeping relations warm with Russia has the potential to clash with the Pope’s passionate concern for refugees with more than than 200,000 people displaced in the Russian-occupied regions. Francis made reference to this in his speech, although it was couched in diplomatic language. Peace, he said, required everyone to “make full use of their particular identity, having the possibility, above all else, to coexist peacefully in their homeland, or freely to return to that land, if for some reason they have been forced to leave it.” 

Francis arrived in Georgia as part of the latest leg in his visit to the Caucasus region, the “east-meets-west” part of the world which he wishes to bring his medicine of mercy and reconciliation to. The first part of the tour took place in June when the Pope went to Armenia, a country that has been involved in a long running dispute with Azerbaijan, a country he travels to on Sunday. Following his speech, the Pope had to once again put his diplomatic skills into action when meeting the Georgian orthodox leader, Patriarch Ilia II, whose church is traditionally the most hostile to dialogue with Rome. At the airport in Tbilisi, protestors held up signs saying the Vatican is a “spiritual aggressor” and that the Pope is “not welcome in orthodox Georgia.”

While the two did not openly prayer together, the meeting between Francis and the patriarch was friendly with the two having tea together and exchanging warm words. During his speech to the patriarch, Francis quoted an important Georgian poet, Rustaveli, who wrote in the “The Knight in the Panther’s skin” that “whoever does not look for a friend is an enemy to himself”.

Francis stressed that the problems of the world meant the two leaders urgently needed to “renew our commitment to the bonds which exist between us” while the patriarch said the Pope’s visit convinced him relations between the two churches would improve. And in a sign of a thaw in tensions there will be an orthodox delegation at a Mass celebrated by Francis tomorrow in Tbilisi, something which was ruled impossible when John Paul II went to the country in 1999. 

After the meeting with the patriarch the Pope travelled to the Chaldean church of Chaldean Church of St. Simon Bar Sabbae to prayer for peace in Syria and Iraq. The Pope is due to spend tomorrow in Georgia and on Sunday flies to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. 



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