ROME—Pope Francis this weekend is visiting Georgia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics radically different from each other, in what’s perceived as the closing of his Caucasus tour after his visit to Armenia last June.
Georgia is a country with a Christian Orthodox majority and in constant friction with Russia, while Azerbaijan has a Shi’a Muslim majority and a long-standing dispute with Armenia over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pope Francis is expected to bring up the issues of peace, solidarity and reconciliation throughout the Sept. 30-Oct 2 visit, making the pitch at both religious and political levels.
As Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s top diplomat, said speaking to the Vatican’s Television Center this week, these lands have a “particular richness and liveliness, but at the same time they suffer from particular strains, lacerations.”
“The message of the pope will really be an invitation to do what he often says: don’t turn differences into sources of conflict, but of mutual enrichment,” he said.
The motto of the papal visit for Georgia will be “We are all brothers,” which has an evident ecumenical undertone, and for Azerbaijan “Pax vobis,” which translates to “peace to you.”
Hence the trip presents itself as a sensitive one, where locals might hope for the pope to address some long-standing disputes, but which Francis might choose to skip to avoid adding fuel to the fire or being perceived as taking sides.
Although comparisons are difficult, there are some statistics of both countries worth looking into ahead of this trip, the 16th of Francis’s papacy, and the 23rd and 24th countries he visits, respectively.
The two countries have welcomed a pope once before, St. John Paul II, who visited Georgia in 1999 and Azerbaijan in 2002.
In Georgia, the Eastern Orthodox make up 84 percent of the population, Muslims 10 percent, Apostolic Armenians close to three, and Catholics less than one. In Azerbaijan, 96 percent of the population is Muslim, 63 percent of which is Shi’a while 33 percent Sunni. Catholics represent 0.01 percent of the total.
This makes Azerbaijan the country with the smallest Catholic community Francis has visited to date. It has, quite literally, less than 300 people. According to Google flights, it would be cheaper to fly every Catholic Azerbaijani to Rome ($118,872 for a return flight) than flying the pope to them ($141,655, based on what journalists flying with him are paying).
Georgia’s Catholic community is a bit bigger, though with 110,000 people Catholics are still overwhelmingly a minority. With 32 parishes, the former Soviet nation has one Church for every 3,500 people, one bishop for every 55,000, a priest for every 4,000 and a religious sister for every 3,000.
Azerbaijan, in the other hand, has one parish in total, no bishop, only seven priests and seven religious sisters.
Francis will spend two nights in Georgia and 11 hours in Azerbaijan, delivering 10 addresses in total, three of them during the last leg of the trip.
The pope will also celebrate two public Masses, one in each country.
What to look for in Georgia
Upon arriving in the country’s capital city of Tbilisi, Francis will first meet political leaders, including President Giorgi Margvelashvili. He will also hold separate meetings with the leader of the Orthodox Church in Georgia, Patriarch Ilia II, and the Assyrian Chaldean community.
A Vatican spokesman said earlier in the week that the pope’s visit to the Chaldean Catholic Church of St. Shemon Bar Sabbae was a sign of support to Catholics in Syria and Iraq amidst the ongoing wars, something Francis spoke about on Wednesday, when he said that those bombing civilians in Aleppo will “face God’s judgement.”
At least 13 Chaldean bishops will participate in this prayer service. They will be flying to Georgia after their synod, held in Erbil, Iraq, from Sept. 21-28.
Francis and Ilia will exchange a greeting and deliver speeches — yet, as was the case when John Paul II visited the country, the two won’t pray together. In fact, the pope will be received by his religious counterpart as a “head of state.”
Although Pope Francis is not expected to address the issues directly during his meeting with Marvelashvili, the matter of the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 will be in the air.
A major part of the international community, including the United States and the European Union consider these to be occupied territories and have condemned the Russian military presence there.
Sources have told Crux that although with Francis one has to “expect the unexpected,” he’ll probably refrain from using the term “occupation” choosing instead to speak of “territorial integrity,” an expression Benedict XVI sometimes used.
It’s worth mentioning however, that ahead of his visit to Armenia a papal spokesman suggested Francis wouldn’t use the politically loaded term term “genocide,” yet he did.
A term he will probably use, and more than once, is “refugee,” not necessarily referring to the European crisis, which has long been dubbed the worst since World War II, but to the 300,000 internally displaced persons in Georgia, a product of the 2008 war.
Something else that’s expected to happen during the pope’s visit to one of the first countries to adopt Christianity as a state religion, back in the fourth century, is the protest of some Gregorian Orthodox priests and ultranationalist movements.
According to Georgia Today, some have already held a rally outside the Vatican Embassy in Tbilisi to protest the pope’s visit, claiming that it was an affront to the purity of the Georgian Orthodox faith and an insult to the Georgian people.
The news site quotes Avtandil Ungiadze, one of the organizers of the rally, who claimed the protesters were there to “preserve the reputation of the true church,” and vowed to bar Pope Francis from entering the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in nearby Mtskheta.
Francis will visit the cathedral on Saturday, after celebrating Mass at the Meski stadium. Although the Catholicos won’t attend, it’ll be the first time in modern history that a delegation from the Gregorian Orthodox Church participates in a papal Mass.
What to look for in Azerbaijan
Francis’s visit to this country will be his first to a majority Shi’ite nation.
During his 11-hour visit to the capital, Baku, Francis will meet local authorities and celebrate Mass.
Yet a central moment of the day will be his meeting with the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus region, Allahshukur Pashazadeh, one of the most influential Muslims in the world. The two will take part in an interfaith encounter with Baku’s Orthodox bishop and with the president of the local Jewish community.
Talking at the 3rd International Forum “Religion and Peace,” the imam strongly condemned the acts of ISIS and similar organizations with their “pseudo-religious” ideas. “God won’t forgive their inhumane acts,” he said.
After the years of Soviet rule, Catholicism was officially recognized in Azerbaijan in 2002, following John Paul’s visit. It was only after this papal trip that the task of rebuilding St Mary’s Catholic Church, destroyed by communist authorities in the 1930s, was allowed. This makes the church where Francis will celebrate Mass only nine years old.
For centuries Christians, Muslims and Jews have lived peacefully in the country, with no religiously-motivated fights recorded to date. It’s actually common practice for Christians and Muslims to exchange visits on the occasion of religious feasts, and Muslims even provided financial aid for Catholics to rebuild the Salesian-run lone church.
Just as he did when visiting Armenia earlier in the year, the pope is expected to address the two countries long-standing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in passing, speaking of the need for peace and reconciliation without actually mentioning the disputed region, where more than 70 soldiers were killed in April.
The previous papal visits
In modern times, both countries received one papal visit each.
John Paul II went to Tbilisi in 1999, where he, as Francis will do, celebrated only one public Mass for the country’s small Catholic community. Reports from that time say an estimated ten-thousand people, a fifth of the country’s Catholics back then, attended the service.
Despite the Polish pope’s calls for closer links between the two Christian churches, there was no Orthodox delegation participating in the Mass, something that is expected to happen this time around.
During his homily, John Paul told the newly freed former Soviet nation birth place of Joseph Stalin, that without God, man is unable to find true happiness.
“Without God, man ends up, in fact, going against himself, because he is unable to build a social order sufficiently respectful of the fundamental rights of the person and of civic coexistence.”
His encounter with the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the same who will welcome Francis, visibly illustrated the lingering obstacles to John Paul’s longtime dream of Christian unity.
While the Catholic leader spoke of his desire to promote reconciliation between the two churches, Ilia II addressed the pope as a visiting head of state and spoke of “friendly relations” between the two “countries.”
In an odd reversal of roles, it was President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister who was baptized in the Orthodox Church in 1992, who pressed for the papal visit and persuaded the patriarch to consent.
During his 2002 visit to Azerbaijan, the Polish pope focused on the issue of religious coexistence in many of his addresses.
For instance, talking to religious and political leaders, he said: “Despite the differences between us [Jewish, Christians and Muslims], together we feel called to foster ties of mutual esteem and benevolence.”
After saying that religion “must not serve to increase rivalry and hatred, but to promote love and peace,” John Paul II promised that as long as he had breath within him he shall cry out: “Peace, in the name of God!”