TBILISI, Georgia – In Georgia, a former Soviet country locked in an ongoing dispute over 20 percent of its land with Russia, Pope Francis on Friday called for an increasing mutual esteem and respect for the “sovereign rights of every nation.”
“Peaceful coexistence among all people and states in the region is the indispensable and prior condition for authentic and enduring progress,” Francis said when meeting the Georgian civil authorities, including President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
According to the pope, who avoided naming Russia or the two self-proclaimed republics involved in a 2008 Russo-Georgian war, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, this requires “increasing mutual esteem and consideration, which can never lay aside respect for the sovereign rights of every country within the framework of international law.”
The Vatican often avoids calling specific countries out so as not to be perceived as taking sides, even more so when there’s an ongoing conflict. One of the few recent times Francis did that, calling for an end to what he described as a “fratricidal war” in Ukraine, he got into trouble with locals who see it instead as a Russian invasion.
When it comes to the Kremlin, the Vatican is generally cautious, among other reasons because it doesn’t want to antagonize Moscow at the expense of better ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Francis urged overcoming the “dominant way of thinking” that prevents dealing with legitimate differences with civilized dialogue, “reason, moderation, and responsibility.”
Dialogue, the pontiff continued, is more necessary now than ever, when there’s “no shortage of violent extremism that manipulates and distorts civic and religious principles, and subjugates them to the dark designs of domination and death.”
Francis also said priority should be given to human beings and to try by all means to prevent differences from giving rise “to violence that can cause ruinous calamity for people and for society.”
Ethnic, linguistic, political and religious differences, he continued, should lead to mutual enrichment in favor of the common good, instead of being “exploited as grounds for turning discord into conflict and conflict into interminable tragedy.”
As is often the case when he’s addressing the political class, Francis also spoke about those who have been forced to leave their homes, though here too he avoided using the word refugees. The reason for this is the 220,000 to 300,000 internally displaced refugees that have fled the two regions that most of the international community considers occupied by Russia.
People should have the possibility of living their particular identities in full, coexisting peacefully in their homelands, and returning to them if for some reason they were forced to leave it, he said, asking civil authorities to search for tangible solutions even if there still are lingering political disagreements.
Peace and reconciliation are expected to be a common thread during this Sept. 30-Oct. 2 visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Ahead of the trip, on Friday Francis tweeted:
Today I leave for Georgia and Azerbaijan. Please accompany me with your prayers so we can sow peace, unity and reconciliation together.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) September 30, 2016
Francis also thanked Georgia’s small Catholic community – 110,000 of the total four million people – calling for it to continue to contribute to the growth of society.
The country’s economy is the fastest-growing among the countries surrounding the Black Sea, something Francis acknowledged by saying that since its independence 25 years ago, Georgia has sought ways to guarantee the most inclusive development possible, “not without great sacrifice for the people.”
Honoring the ecumenical undertone of the trip, the pope also called for the “renewed and strengthened dialogue with the ancient Georgian Orthodox Church.
As predicted, however, Margvelashvili wasn’t so politically correct. Ever since its independence from Russia in 1991, the country has taken a pro-European approach, distancing itself from Moscow, even before the recent war.
Margvelashvili began his address by thanking Pope Francis for supporting the “territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia,” quoting a term Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI used to refer to the crisis.
“Twenty percent of our territories are occupied,” the president said in his welcoming remarks. “We’re only 25 miles away from the place where the people witness violence, kidnapping, murder and abuse on a daily basis!”
The return of the refugees, Margvelashvili said, is the country’s primary goal, because people shouldn’t have to pay for political choices. Politicians, he added, have the duty of guaranteeing human development, something Georgia won’t be able to achieve while it continues to “be occupied by the neighboring country.”
Pope Francis’s welcome in the country was one the Argentine pontiff isn’t used to, with the city’s streets devoid of screaming and chanting crowds.
The only part of the papal route from the airport to the residence where he’ll stay that had people waiting for him was the airport exit, where a group of some two dozen people waited for him with signs calling the Vatican a “spiritual aggressor.” A second sign read: “Pope arch-heretic, you are not welcome in Orthodox Georgia.”
Protesters were expected, since they’re a common denominator of papal trips when the bishop of Rome visits a country with an Orthodox majority. In the case of Georgia, protests began several days before, when a similarly sized crowd rallied in front of the Vatican’s embassy to the Caucasus region.
After the welcoming ceremony, Francis met with Patriarch Ilia II in the Patriarchal Palace. The two first had a private encounter, and then a small public gathering with the members of the Gregorian Orthodox Synod and the papal entourage.
In his remarks to Ilia II, Francis said that the love for the Lord “raises us up, because it enables us to rise above the misunderstandings of the past, above the calculations of the present and fears for the future.”
Through peace and forgiveness, he then said, people are called to overcome “our true enemies” who aren’t of flesh and blood but “the evil spirits from without and from within ourselves.”
Calling Georgia a land “rich of courageous heroes” who lost their lives defending Christ, Francis prayed for their intercession to bring relief “to the many Christians who even today suffer persecution and slander, and may they strengthen in us the noble aspiration to be fraternally united in proclaiming the Gospel of peace.”
After encountering the patriarch, Francis was scheduled to meet with the Assyrian Chaldean community, defined by the Vatican spokesman as a sign of support to Catholics in Syria and Iraq amidst the ongoing wars.
On Saturday he’s celebrating Mass, visiting the Orthodox Cathedral and on Sunday he’s visiting Azerbaijan.