Pope Francis was on the plane again on Sept. 30, beginning a whirlwind three-day journey that takes him to predominantly Orthodox Georgia and overwhelmingly Muslim Azerbaijan, countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and that today have complicated relations with Russia.
On the eve of the pope’s visit, Cardinal Pietro Parolin summarized the message Francis will deliver: “Don’t turn differences into sources of conflict, but of mutual enrichment.”
His first aim on this trip is to strengthen relations with the Orthodox and Muslim communities and to encourage the tiny Catholic populations in those lands. His other priority will be to promote reconciliation and peace in this tinderbox region of the Caucuses on the East-West divide, through which oil and gas flow to Europe. It is a region that is also part of that “piecemeal third world war” which Francis has so often spoken about.
This evening in Georgia, he will again throw the media spotlight on the seemingly endless conflict in Syria but also the ongoing conflict and tensions in Iraq when he visits the Syro-Chaldean church of St. Simon the Tanner. He will be joined by this church’s bishops who have flown in from those war-torn zones to pray with him for peace in both countries.
This is the second leg of a visit that began last June when Francis went to Armenia. His original intention was to visit all three countries on the same trip, but that was ruled out because the Orthodox Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia, was scheduled to participate in the first Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete at the end of June, though at the last minute he decided not to do so.
It is Francis’ 16th trip outside Italy since becoming pope in March 2013. Georgia is the 23rd and Azerbaijan the 24th country he has visited since then. He is the second pope to come here; St. John Paul II visited Georgia in 1999 and Azerbaijan in 2002.
Francis is spending two nights in Georgia, a country that fought a war with Russia in 2008 and which remains in tension with it over the disputed Ossetia region. It is a majority Christian nation. Oriental Orthodox count for 84 percent of the country’s 3.7 million population, and Muslims make up another 10 percent, while the Catholic community—with some 100,000 members—counts for less than one percent of the population.
The slogan for his visit to Georgia is significant: “We are all brothers.” The pope’s main goal is to foster closer relations with the Orthodox church in this land whose Christian roots date back to 320 AD and so continue his effort to heal the East-West divide in Christianity. And so, after arriving in Tbilisi, the capital city and meeting with the country’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, and members of the government and representatives of civil society, Francis will meet with the Orthodox Patriarch Elia. St. John Paul II also met with Patriarch Elia in 1999.
The Georgian Orthodox Church has been one of the most cautious Orthodox churches, one of the least open in the ecumenical field, particularly in relation to Rome, and so today’s face-to-face encounter between the two Christian leaders could help transform that relationship and climate in a positive sense. It is an important meeting and follows on his historic meeting in Cuba with the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill.
Their encounter comes after this church signed the recent important Catholic-Orthodox agreement, but later expressed some reservations. Sadly, however, the pope and patriarch will not pray together, as the Georgian Orthodox rule this out.
In Georgia too, Francis will seek to foster good relations with the Muslim community, though the most important Catholic-Muslim encounter will take place in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where Francis will meet the most important Islamic leader in the Caucuses, Sheik Allashukur Pashazade.
Francis will fly in and out of Azerbaijan on the same day, Sunday Oct. 2, after meeting the country’s president, Illham Aliyev, and government ministers.
Some 63 percent of Azerbaijan’s 9.4 million people are Shia, 33 percent Sunni. The Catholic church here, which was officially recognized by the state in 2002 after St. John Paul II’s visit, has less than 300 members, six priests, seven religious women, but no bishop.
The slogan for Francis’s visit to Azerbaijan is also his message: “Pax Vobis” (Peace be to you). This is particularly relevant given that the country, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, is in conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh, a region mainly inhabited by Armenians but which had been transferred to Azerbaijan by Russia in the first half of the 20th century. Last April this conflict flared up again and left some 75 dead. Francis would like to promote dialogue and reconciliation between the two countries, as he indicated when he visited Armenia in June.
With this three-day visit, Francis will have travelled yet again to the peripheries, extending the hand of friendship to Orthodox and Muslim alike and bringing the warm embrace of the universal church to the tiny Catholic communities with whom he will celebrate the Eucharist in the capital cities of both countries.
Pope Francis returns to Rome on Sunday evening, but at the end of the month he will be on a plane again, this time to Sweden for the 500th anniversary celebration of the Protestant Reformation.