Pope Francis has urged the Georgian government to focus on returning more than 230,000 displaced people to their own homes, as the Georgian-Russian dispute over control of South Ossetia continues.
Shortly after arriving in Tblisi this morning, the Pope met privately with Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, before addressing a small gathering of civic leaders and members of the diplomatic corps outside the presidential palace.
“Human beings should not have to suffer because of political situations and they have a right to return to their own homes,” Pope Francis said.
Pope Francis urged the people of the region to make concerted efforts to respect their cultural and ethnic differences, giving everyone a chance “to coexist peacefully in their homeland or freely to return to that land if, for some reason, they have been forced to leave it.”
Only Russia and a handful of other nations recognise the supposed independence of South Ossetia.
President Margvelashvili maintained that Georgia “is still victim of a military aggression on the part of another state: 20 per cent of our territory is occupied and 15 per cent of the population is displaced. Their homes were taken only because they are ethnically Georgian.”
“Only 40 kilometres from here, there is barbed wire that prevents a peaceful population – neighbours and relatives – from having a relationship with each other,” the president said. “Each day human beings witness violence, kidnappings, murders and offences that deeply wound dignity.”
Georgia, which had been part of the Soviet Union, has been working for 25 years to build democracy and promote development. Pope Francis said he hoped the process would continue, increasingly involving all sectors of society to ensure “stability, justice and respect for the rule of law.”
Both the Pope and the president emphasised Georgia’s “European” identity, and it’s geographical location and historic role as a place where Europe and Asia meet. Georgia has been trying to join the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; it has belonged to the Council of Europe since 1999.
The formal meetings took place after a brief airport welcoming ceremony. The president and patriarch were at the airport to welcome the Pope. Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II stood next to each other as the Vatican and Georgian national anthems were played.
The theme the government and local church chose for Pope Francis’ visit was “pax vobis,” “peace be with you.” However, the local response to the Pope’s visit has not been entirely positive. Leaving the airport, the papal motorcade passed two groups of Orthodox faithful protesting the Pope’s visit. The groups held signs written in English, one of which read “Vatican is a spiritual aggressor.”