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article imagePope calls for Christian unity on Caucasus peace tour

By Olivier Baube and Irakli Metreveli (AFP)     Oct 1, 2016 in World

Pope Francis on Saturday called for Christian unity as he visited the seat of Georgia's ancient Orthodox Church on the second day of his peace mission to the volatile Caucasus region.

The pontiff and Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Church, linked arms as they entered the 11th-century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral to the sound of bells chiming and a choir performing polyphonic chants.

Earlier on Saturday, the pope held an open-air mass for thousands of faithful in Georgia's capital Tbilisi, offering worshippers the "consolation that we need amid the turmoil we experience in life".

On Friday, the pontiff called for peaceful "coexistence" in the conflict-ridden ex-Soviet region at the start of a three-day tour that will also take him to Azerbaijan just months after he visited its arch-foe Armenia.

Pope Francis celebrates a Holy Mass at the stadium in Tbilisi  on October 1  2016
Pope Francis celebrates a Holy Mass at the stadium in Tbilisi, on October 1, 2016
Vincenzo Pinto, AFP

Tiny Orthodox Georgia -- one of the world's oldest Christian nations -- fought a brief war with Moscow in 2008, and two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are under what it insists is a de facto Russian occupation.

Many Georgians hope that the Pope's visit -- billed by the Vatican as a peace mission -- will highlight the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Georgians who have been left refugees.

"Parts of my country are under occupation and the Pope's message of peace is very important," Manana Itonishvili, a 56-year-old arts history professor who attended the mass, told AFP.

- Refugees -

As he arrived in Georgia on Friday, Francis spoke of the need for refugees to return to their homes and called for respect for national sovereignty, but he seemed to dodge potential Russian ire by refusing to use the word "occupation".

Pope Francis (left) is welcomed by Patriarch Ilia II -- the leader of the Georgian Orthodox church -...
Pope Francis (left) is welcomed by Patriarch Ilia II -- the leader of the Georgian Orthodox church -- during their meeting in Tbilisi, on September 30, 2016
, Osservatore Romano/AFP

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

On Sunday, Francis is scheduled to travel to Azerbaijan, where he will meet, 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, the Pope 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.

Children react during a meeting with Pope Francis (not pictured) and the Works of Charity of the Chu...
Children react during a meeting with Pope Francis (not pictured) and the Works of Charity of the Church organization before the Assistance Centre of the Camillian Order in Tbilisi
Vincenzo Pinto, AFP

Since then, there have been sporadic outbursts of violence, including several days of major clashes in April that left 110 people dead.

The Georgian Orthodox Church is one of several distinct Eastern Orthodox Churches which also include the Greek and Russian Churches.

It has doctrinal differences with the Roman Catholic Church that date back to the "great schism" of 1054, when the Eastern Church rejected Rome's authority.

The Orthodox Church's refusal to accept the primacy of the Roman pontiff has long been the primary barrier to a rapprochement.

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