News

In ex-Soviet Georgia, pope issues veiled criticism of Russia

Pope Francis, center left, attends a meeting with Georgia's Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi, Georgia, on September 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Pool/Alessandra Tarantino
Pope Francis, center left, attends a meeting with Georgia's Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi, Georgia, on September 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Pool/Alessandra Tarantino

Pope Francis, center left, attends a meeting with Georgia’s Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II during a visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, on September 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Pool/Alessandra Tarantino

TBILISI (Reuters)  Pope Francis called for respect for international law and the sovereign rights of nations as he arrived in Georgia, an implicit criticism of Russia, which keeps troops in two breakaway areas of the ex-Soviet state.

But Francis measured his words carefully, in an apparent attempt not to hurt the Vatican’s increasingly warm ties with the Kremlin-backed Russian Orthodox Church.

Georgia won independence in 1991 but the Kremlin’s shadow still looms large. Russia, which fought a short war with Georgia in 2008, is one of the few countries that recognize the contested areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Speaking at the welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace Friday (Sept. 30), Francis, in a clear reference to the Georgian situation, said relations between states in the region “can never lay aside respect for the sovereign rights of every country within the framework of international law.”

Georgian President Georgy Margvelashvili said there was a desire for all people to live in dignity.

“But this mission cannot be accomplished in the light of violations of the rights of civilians and the territory being occupied by a neighboring country,” he told the pope.

While not specifically mentioning Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Francis supported the right of displaced people to “freely return to that land.”

The government says about 300,000 people have been forced from their homes by the conflict over the disputed territories. Moscow has opposed U.N. resolutions backing their right of return.

‘Creeping occupation’

Georgia, which wants to join the European Union and NATO, has accused Russia of practicing “creeping occupation” by slowly moving fences delineating the breakaway areas from the rest of Georgia’s territory.

“We are just 40 km (25 miles) away from barbed wire fences preventing civilian populations – neighbors, relatives, family members – from having contact with each other,” the president said.

Less than one percent of Georgia’s population of about 3.7 million are Catholic. The overwhelming majority belong to Orthodox Christianity, which broke with Rome in 1054.

Under Francis, who was elected in 2013, the Vatican has made a concerted effort to improve relations with Orthodox Christians in the hopes of an eventual reunion. Earlier this year, he held a historic meeting with Kirill, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Georgian Orthodox Church is one of the more conservative in the Orthodox world. Some of its more hard-core members protested at the airport. They held signs reading: “Vatican is a spiritual aggressor” and “Pope, arch-heretic, you are not welcome in Orthodox Georgia.”

But on Friday evening there was no sign of tension between the two Churches as Georgia’s ailing, 83-year-old Orthodox leader, Patriarch Ilia II, warmly welcomed the pope.

Francis also visited a church of the country’s Assyrian-Chaldean Christian community, where he prayed for victims of war in the Middle East, asking God to comfort those “wearied by bombing” and to “raise up Iraq and Syria from devastation”

About the author

RNS staff

14 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • “Implicit criticism of Russia” is a presumption when the pope did not name names. In an article “Did the pope just kiss Putin’s ring?,” the Economist wrote in February: In a meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, “The joint declaration issued after the meeting hewed close to the Kremlin’s positions on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.” The pope “condoned Russia’s foreign policy and critiqued the West.” For Russia’s government, “it is a diplomatic victory.” The meeting “has helped to underscore Russia’s renewed standing as a global power. Putin’s spokesman called it “a mutual step forward” between Russia and the West.”

  • Popes travel abroad with one purpose in mind : Evangilization.
    The Russian Orthodox Church is a sweeter target than the Georgian Church. Should Putin occupy the rest of Georgia, the Pope has his backside covered.

  • “One purpose in mind: Evangelization”? “Pope Francis called for respect for international law and the sovereign rights of nations.” If that is his “one purpose,” then the pope should have criticized the new Russian “laws that make it illegal to preach, proselytize or hand out religious materials outside of specially designated places … “These deeply flawed measures will buttress the Russian government’s war against human rights and religious freedom,” Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and chair of the commission, said after the measures were passed. “They will make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent, and detain and imprison people.” (See RNS “Churches to Russia: We’re not leaving.”

  • Proselytization rather than evangelization would be closer to the thought I wished to express. The hr was late. Since your response was posted in relatively short order and quoted the Economist, I assume you are commenting from GB. That you had an article from a Feb copy from said publication at hand displays no lack of erudition. As you know, the pope is the Holy See’s chief diplomat (except B16, Bertone usurped that position) as well as the Vicar of Christ. When diplomacy or proselytization is expedent, the pope becomes a chameleon and adapts as the circumstances dictate – (flippantly) esp the eyes and tongue.

  • Thank you.
    You comments are full of quotes from any number of sources, new and old, and appear in a number of online publications. You must have total recall, or the most complete and accessible data base imaginable + staff.
    As an admirer for some period of time, may I ask how you manage to this ?

  • No staff. I’ve written a book and I blog about the corruption in the institutional Catholic Church so I maintain my own data base. My detractors complain that I am only negative. True. Before this pontificate, the Church had a global media for propaganda second to none. Currently, the US media is the greatest hagiographic source for this pope because a “superstar” attracts more readers/viewers and, therefore, more advertising dollars. So I write to bring some balance.

  • I did some research on your writing – very impressive. I have some info that may be of interest to you. A very good RC priest friend of mine for some 40 yrs was once in the Holy See diplomatic corp attached to the UN Mission. He got fired for his criminal activity. I can send you more info, but hesitate to use this forum. If I respond to your 9-28-16 article in the open tabernacle – will you get that response ?

  • Sorry to be a pain – but this isn’t going thru either. Normally I wouldn’t push this – except I think the story is worth it….

  • Sorry about that. I guess you can leave me the message on Open Tabernacle then. Or you can contact my publisher, Diana G. Collier, [email protected], with your email and she will send it to me.

ADVERTISEMENTs