Pope Francis has set off on a three-day visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The first leg of his trip will include a courtesy visit to President Giorgi Margvelashvili and a meeting with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia.
The Pope is expected to issue a strong appeal for peace in Syria and Iraq, where Christians are being attacked and driven from their homes by Islamic extremists. The Pope has strongly condemned the recent assault by Russian and Syrian forces on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.
A special prayer for peace is planned for this evening in Georgia’s Chaldean Catholic church, with members of the Assyrian Chaldean Church leadership. It comes just days after Pope Francis warned those responsible for the Aleppo siege “will be held accountable before God”.
On the eve of the Pope’s visit, he met aid groups working in Syria and urged all governments involved to “renounce their own interests in order to achieve the greater good: peace”.
Following the Pope’s historic meeting with the Russian Patriarch in Cuba earlier this year, it is unclear how critical he will be of what Georgians call the “occupation” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Russia.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. Russia effectively gained complete control over both regions after a brief war against Georgia in 2008.
The Vatican has said the Pope’s main message will be one of peace and reconciliation and that the Pope is unlikely to get drawn into specifics about the conflict.
A more subtle message of the trip is one of steadily improving ties between the Holy See and the two former Soviet republics.
When St John Paul II visited Georgia in 1999 to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Catholic-Orthodox tensions were so high that the Georgian Orthodox Church urged its faithful to stay away from his Mass. Relations are still strained, unlike the Vatican’s more friendly relations with other Orthodox churches. However, the Vatican says an official delegation from the Orthodox patriarchate will attend the Pope’s Mass, to be held tomorrow morning.
“For Georgia’s Catholics and personally for me, the papal visit is a great event,” said Tako Peikrishvili, a 27-year-old from the village of Aral in southern Georgia’s mountains.
Pope Francis will travel to Azerbaijan on Sunday, for the second leg of the trip.