AP: Pope visits Georgia, Azerbaijan with peace message

Pope Francis is wrapping up a Caucasus pilgrimage that began in June in Armenia and ends this weekend with a visit to two other countries with tiny Catholic communities: the Orthodox Christian bastion of Georgia and the largely Shiite Muslim nation of Azerbaijan.

Given the itinerary, Catholic-Orthodox and Christian-Muslim relations will be high on Francis’ agenda. But geopolitical concerns will also lurk behind the scenes during the three-day trip starting Friday in Georgia, one of the world’s oldest Christian lands, the Associated Press reports.

According to the source, Georgia is keen to use the trip to highlight its European and Western aspirations, and also draw attention to what it considers the Russian “occupation” of the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Francis is unlikely to get involved beyond general calls for peace and reconciliation, given a reluctance to offend Russia or the Russian Orthodox Church after his historic meeting with the Russian patriarch in Cuba earlier this year.

The Georgian ambassador to the Vatican, Tamara Grdzelidze, said she wasn’t optimistic Francis would use the term “occupation.”

“But in Armenia he spoke about ‘genocide,’ so you never know with this pope,” she said, referring to the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians.

Adding to the geopolitical mix, Francis will make a strong appeal for peace in Syria and Iraq, where Christians are being attacked and driven from their homes by Islamic extremists. A special event is planned Friday in the Chaldean Catholic church in Tbilisi.

“The message is going to be a message of peace,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.

A more subtle message is one of steadily improving ties between the Holy See and the two former Soviet republics.

Ramaz Sakvarelidze, an independent political analyst in Tbilisi, said the papal visit should help to underscore Georgia’s aspirations for greater Western integration, including its sought-after membership in the European Union and NATO.

“The visit will certainly have a positive impact on Georgia’s image, it will help underline its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and a desire to embrace the principles of the Western world,” he said.

After Georgia, Francis heads to Azerbaijan, completing the visit he had hoped would have begun in Armenia and ended in Azerbaijan to show a symbolic bridge between neighbors bitterly divided over Nagorno-Karabakh.

While in Armenia in June, Francis called for reconciliation and for all sides to “resist being caught up in the illusory power of vengeance.”

Francis will spend only about 10 hours in the Azeri capital of Baku, using the time to highlight the country’s interfaith mix, meeting with the sheik of Caucasus Muslims, as well as representatives of Azeri Jews and other religious communities.

And he will celebrate Mass for the Catholic community which represents less than 1 percent of the population: There are about 200 Azeri-born Catholics and about 15,000 Catholic foreigners who live in Baku.

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