27 September 2016, The Tablet

Francis' Caucasus tour a chance to bridge the gap between east and west

Pope's weekend trip expected to be hot topic for locals despite tiny Catholic communities in Azerbaijan and Georgia

The Pope’s three-day visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan this weekend marks the latest papal initiative to foster dialogue and understanding in the world’s troubled regions. With just under 300 Catholics, a Muslim population of more than 90 per cent and a president accused of appalling human rights abuses, Azerbaijan is not an obvious location for a papal visit. 

But for Pope Francis, who visits the country on Sunday, it is part of his plan to bring peace and reconciliation to the “east-meets-west” Caucasus region, a part of the world riddled with military conflicts yet given little attention by western media. Azerbaijan has been in a long-running battle with Armenia, a country the Pope went to in June: since the 1990s the dispute between the two has centred on the Nagorno-Karabakh region with 75 soldiers killed in April. 

Fr Stefan Kormancik, a Salesian from Slovakia who is one of six priests serving in the country, explained that Francis’ trip was a “very important step for reconciliation” and would help re-balance perceptions that he might be siding with Armenia given he had visited there first. 

Despite the tiny number of Catholics in the country, the Pope’s one-day visit to the Azerbaijan capital of Baku is expected to get wall-to-wall coverage by state-run television outlets with thousands turning out to see him. Kormancik explained that many in the Muslim country, which has a secular constitution, revere the Pope as a “holy man”. 

Francis’ visit to Azerbaijan was twinned with a trip to Georgia, a country still scarred by a war with Russia in 2008 over the disputed South Ossetia region.

“My hope is that the Pope’s visit will put Georgia back into the international horizon again. Since 2008 our war has not really been in the news,” Tamara Grdzelidze, the Georgian Ambassador to the Holy See told The Tablet. And she was fully expecting the Pope to mention the importance of her country’s “territorial integrity”. 

The focus on reconciliation in the Caucasus region goes hand-in-hand with the Pope’s attempts to heal the east-west divide within Christianity, something he has made significant steps towards by having an historic meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow in Cuba earlier this year. In Georgia, which has Christian roots dating back to 320 AD, Francis will today visit the Orthodox cathedral in Mtshketa and meet with the country’s Patriarch Ilia II. 

They will not, however, pray together as the Georgians are the most sceptical members of the Orthodox family when it comes to dialogue with Rome: last week they refused to give their full assent to a major Catholic-Orthodox document seeking to overcome historical disagreements between the two Churches. 

The 50,000 strong Catholic community in Georgia includes those from the Syro-Chaldean Church and the Pope is to meet with them at the church of St Simon the Tanner, in a liturgy including prayers for peace in Syria and Iraq. Francis will also be using this weekend’s visit to highlight Christian-Muslim dialogue with the good relations between the Christian country of Georgia and Azerbaijan a case in point. While in Baku the Pope will meet with the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus region, Allahshukur Pashazade - a man considered one of most influential Muslims in the world -  and then take part in an interfaith encounter with representatives of different religious communities in the country.

Different faiths peacefully co-exist in Azerbaijan with the Catholic Church officially recognised by the state in 2002, following John Paul II’s visit there. And while the country’s population is predominantly Shia Muslim, women enjoy the same legal rights as men.

Speaking to the Tablet this week Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, said: “Following in the footsteps of Pope Saint John Paul II, who visited Armenia in 2001, Georgia in November 1999 and Azerbaijan in May 2002, the Holy Father carries with him, to the Caucasus, a message of peace and harmony among the nations, together with a word of encouragement for the Catholic communities present in the three countries, where they constitute a rather small minority. In addition, these visits to the region help deepen relations with the Georgian Orthodox Church, while facilitating interreligious dialogue in Azerbaijan.”

PICTURE: The Georgian flag reflected in the water outside Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Tbilisi



“The Pope is scheduled to leave the Vatican on Friday morning, headed for the Georgian capital Tbilisi. His first encounter there will be with the president, with government authorities and representatives of civil society gathered at the imposing presidential palace. From there he goes on to meet the country’s Orthodox leader Patriarch Elia, who was also on hand for Pope John Paul II’s visit to the newly independent nation back in 1999.

The final event on Friday will be a visit to the Syro-Chaldean church of St Simon the Tanner, one of three different rites making up the small Catholic community in the former Soviet nation. The pope will join Syro-Chaldean bishops from around the world there to pray for peace in Syria and Iraq.

Pope Francis begins the following day with Mass at a stadium in Tbilisi named after one of Georgia’s most famous footballers. Significantly, a delegation from the Orthodox Patriarchate will also be present at the Mass, a sign of growing friendship despite the many doctrinal difficulties that continue to divide leaders of the two Churches.

In the afternoon, the Pope will meet with priests, religious and seminarians at one of the two Catholic parishes in the capital, before greeting several hundred disabled and vulnerable people being cared for by members of the Camilian order.  The Pope’s final event in Georgia will be a visit to the patriarchal cathedral in the nearby ancient city of Mtshketa, listed as one of Unesco’s world heritage sites.

On the final day of the trip, Pope Francis flies from Tbilisi to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan where he’ll celebrate Mass for the tiny Catholic community at the only parish church run by the Salesian order. In the afternoon he’ll make a courtesy visit to the president and meet the region’s Muslim leader, Sheik  Allashukur Pashazade, before taking part in an interfaith encounter with representatives of all the other religious communities in the country.”


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