This weekend the Pope flies to Georgia, where he will spend two days, and then makes a brief stop for eleven hours in Azerbaijan. This will complete his tour of the region, following his recent trip to Armenia. The original intention was to do all three countries at once, but that was not possible as Azerbaijan and Armenia are still locked in conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. You may have forgotten that war, or indeed never heard of it, but it flared up again only this year.
To call the situation in the South Caucasus complicated would be a massive understatement. And let us not forget that these three places, objects of the Pope’s visit, are the independent countries of the region, all ex-Soviet republics. The places where the Pope is not going, still parts of the Russian Federation, such as Chechnya, are even more complex and have even more tragic histories. A good guide to the political and religious complexities are provided here by Francis X Rocca.
Given that neither Georgia nor Azerbaijan have large Catholic populations, and that both were visited by Saint John Paul II, it is not immediately apparent why the Pope is making this visit. The key to understanding is ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue.
In Azerbaijan, a Shi’ite country by and large, the Pope will be able to meet some significant leaders of that community. There are few place on earth where the Shia are in a large majority – the main place is of course Iran – and the visit to Azerbaijan could be read as throwing a bouquet gently in the direction of Teheran. Of course, in so doing, as the Pope will be well aware, he risks alienating the Sunni Muslims, in particular Saudi Arabia, with whom the Vatican has no diplomatic relations.
The dangers of alienating people are even more acute in Georgia. Here the Orthodox Church is one of the least inclined to ecumenism with Catholics. There have been reports of some Georgian Orthodox getting hot under their collars about the approaching Papal visit. But there will be a few encounters with the Georgian Orthodox Church, and given that the Pope will be able to show the Georgians that he does not have horns and a tail, the visit should do some good.
More complex is the relationship with Russia. Russia has been at war with Georgia (another war you may have forgotten, or indeed never heard of) and has carved off two slices of Georgian territory in the process. Since the war, trade has been disrupted and the Georgian economy, once heavily dependant on exporting its produce to Russia, has suffered accordingly.
There are 200,000 displaced persons inside Georgia thanks to Russian aggression. No doubt the Georgian government would like the Pope to acknowledge this, particularly given his record on standing up for refugee rights. But to do so would annoy the Russians, who do not want to be reminded of the Georgian war and its obvious parallels with the current situation in Ukraine. Given the Vatican’s current desire to accommodate Russia, seemingly at all costs, it is hard to see the Georgian visit turning into a win/win situation for the Pope.
One thing will certainly be assured: the Pope flies in to these two countries as an undoubted world leader, and the prestige of the Papacy is high in international circles. These visits may well reinforce that. And the visit will bring joy to the Catholics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. But politically, the Pope will have to tread carefully.