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article imagePope calls for 'coexistence' at start of Caucasus tour

By Olivier Baube and Irakli Metreveli (AFP)     Sep 30, 2016 in World

Pope Francis called Friday for respect of national sovereignty and "coexistence" as he arrived in Georgia but seemed to dodge potential Russian ire at the start of a visit to the volatile Caucasus region.

The pontiff was greeted warmly by President Giorgi Margvelashvili and the leader of the Georgian Orthodox church, Patriarch Ilia II, at the start of the three-day visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan that the Vatican has billed as a peace mission.

Pro-Western Georgia -- one of the world's oldest Christian nations -- fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 and two Moscow-backed breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which remain out of Tbilisi's control.

After meeting with the pontiff, Margvelashvili thanked him for supporting Georgia's territorial integrity, saying that "20 percent of the Georgian territory remains under occupation" by the Russian troops.

But in a speech in the presidential palace's courtyard before government officials, civil society leaders, and foreign diplomats, Francis did not mention Russia, nor the word "occupation."

Apparently wary of irritating the Kremlin and Russia's powerful Orthodox Church, Francis only made general calls for "the respect of sovereign prerogatives of all countries within the framework of international law."

Pope Francis delivers a speech at the Presidential Palace in Tbilisi on September 30  2016
Pope Francis delivers a speech at the Presidential Palace in Tbilisi on September 30, 2016
Vincenzo Pinto, AFP

"Coexistence between all peoples and states in the region" is "an indispensable precondition" for peace and stability, he said.

On Sunday, Francis is due in Azerbaijan, where he will meet with, among others, President Ilham Aliyev, just days after the authoritarian leader won a referendum on constitutional changes seen as consolidating his grip on power.

While in the energy-rich country, Francis is expected to reiterate the call he made three months ago in Armenia for a peaceful resolution of the long-simmering conflict over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh.

Officially part of Azerbaijan, the territory has been under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists since 1994, when a war between the two countries ended in a ceasefire but no formal peace accord.

Since then, there have been sporadic outbursts of violence, including one in April that left 110 people dead.

- Steps to peace -

Interfaith dialogue and reconciliation between different branches of Christianity have been dominant themes of Francis's papacy.

And he will be seeking to strengthen relations with the Georgian Church which, like other Orthodox churches, does not recognise papal primacy and has doctrinal differences with the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Francis laughs as he welcomes journalists aboard the flight to Tbilisi  Georgia  on September 3...
Pope Francis laughs as he welcomes journalists aboard the flight to Tbilisi, Georgia, on September 30, 2016
Vincenzo Pinto, AFP

On Friday, Francis prayed for peace in Syria and Iraq with Syrian Catholic bishops at Tbilisi's Church of Saint Simon Bar Sabbae.

The churches' disagreements on a number of theological issues explain why Pope Francis and Patriarch Ilia II will not pray together in public during the pontiff's visit to Georgia.

"The papal visit may bring in a certain thaw in the two churches' relations, but not a breakthrough," Levan Sutidze, religion columnist at Georgia's Tabula magazine, told AFP.

"Theological differences are substantial and the Georgian Church is known for its isolationist position."

Ilia, 83, has overseen a post-Soviet revival of a church which claims the loyalty of more than 80 percent of Georgia's 4.9 million population.

The church leader is a conservative figure known for some controversial views, including that homosexuality is a disease that should be treated like drug addiction.

Georgia was one of the cradles of early Christianity and one of Jesus's apostles, Andrew, is credited with spreading the faith to the territories that make up modern Georgia.

Occupied by the Bolsheviks in 1921, the country regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and is now targeting membership in the European Union and NATO -- a process its diplomats hope will be advanced by the papal visit.

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