VATICAN CITY (RNS) Peace and reconciliation will be the focus of Pope Francis’ first official visit to the nations of Georgia and Azerbaijan later this week.
Building interreligious dialogue has been one of the pope’s top priorities since his election three years ago, and he has a close relationship with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
Observers say the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 trip will be significant.
“It is a trip of ecumenical importance for relations with the Orthodox Church in Georgia and has interreligious value for peace because of the (pope’s) meetings with other religions,” said Andrea Tornielli, respected Vatican journalist for the Italian daily La Stampa.
“The Caucasus region has been and is still afflicted.”
But the pope’s latest trip has already provoked fierce opposition from some Georgian Orthodox hard-liners.
Last week, Georgian Orthodox ultranationalists and priests held a rally outside the Vatican Embassy in Tbilisi to protest the pope’s visit.
According to the news website Georgia Today, the group claimed the papal visit was an affront to the purity of the Georgian Orthodox faith and an insult to the Georgian people.
One of the rally organizers, Avtandil Ungiadze, said the protesters were there to “preserve the reputation of the true church” and vowed to block Francis from entering the 11th-century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in nearby Mtskheta, 12 miles from the capital.
The pope’s visit follows his June trip to Armenia, where he appealed for peace and religious freedom in the Caucasus region.
Tornielli said tensions remain between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the pope wants to support reconciliation in the region.
More than 80 percent of Georgia’s 3.7 million residents are Orthodox, and Francis is hoping to build closer relations with religious leaders.
Despite the pope’s efforts, Orthodox leaders have so far not overcome differences with the Vatican on some doctrinal issues.
The pope’s visit begins Friday (Sept. 30) in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where he will meet with President Giorgi Margvelashvili and hold separate meetings with the leader of the Orthodox Church in Georgia, Patriarch Ilia II, and the Assyrian Chaldean community.
On Saturday, in an unusual move, an Orthodox delegation will take part in a Mass Francis will celebrate at the Mikheil Meskhi stadium in Tbilisi.
“It is an important sign,” said Tornielli. “At the same time they cannot hide the difficulties; the Georgian patriarchy, in the world of Orthodoxy, is among the most lukewarm about ecumenical developments.”
On Sunday the pope will travel to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where he will celebrate Mass and meet members of the Salesian community.
He will then meet with President Ilham Aliyev and also talk with the sheikh of the Muslims of the Caucasus, the Orthodox bishop of Baku and the president of the Jewish community.
(Josephine McKenna is RNS’ Vatican correspondent)