VATICAN CITY — On Wednesday, Pope Francis gave a recap of his recent trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan, noting how this year both nations will celebrate the 25th anniversary of their independence from the Soviet regime.
“Both of these countries have very ancient historic, cultural and religious roots, but at the same time are living a new phase,” the Pope said Oct. 5, noting that, for “a good part of the 20th century,” they were both under Soviet control.
Although both have been independent for 25 years, “at this stage, these countries meet various difficulties in different spheres of social life,” he said, explaining that the Church “is called to be present and to be close, especially in the name of charity and human promotion.”
Pope Francis spoke during his weekly general audience, just days after returning from his Sept. 30-Oct. 2 papal visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan. The trip was seen as a continuation and completion of his visit to Armenia in June.
By visiting Georgia and Azerbaijan, “I could, thanks to God, realize the project of visiting all of these Caucuses nations, to confirm the Catholic Church that lives in them and to encourage the journey of these populations toward peace and brotherhood,” he said.
Francis’ words come as both Georgia and Azerbaijan are in conflicts with other countries. While Azerbaijan currently maintains tense relations with Armenia, Georgia is widely affected by the Russian occupation of the partially recognized states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the Russo-Georgian War of 2008.
According to the news agency Aljazeera, although Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their own independence from Georgia soon after the war, only a few nations, including Russia, recognize it. The majority of the international community, including the United States and the European Union, consider the territories to be occupied and have condemned Russia’s military presence.
The Pope stressed the importance of interreligious collaboration, saying that while accompanying these nations amid their current difficulties, the Church must always seek to do so “in communion with the other Churches and Christian communities, and in dialogue with other religious communities, in the certainty that God is the Father of all and that we are all brothers and sisters.”
Recalling his visit to Georgia, the Pope noted how the Church’s mission in the country “passes naturally through collaboration with our Orthodox brothers, who form the vast majority of the population.”
“So it was a very important sign that when I arrived at Tbilisi, to receive me at the airport I found, together with the president of the republic, also the venerable Patriarch Ilia II,” the Pope said, adding that, “[regarding] the meeting with him that afternoon, it was moving.”
In Georgia, there is tension between the Georgian Orthodox Church — an Eastern Orthodox Church to which more than 80% of Georgians adhere — and the Roman Catholic Church, which constitutes about 2% of Georgia’s population.
The Georgian Orthodox Church, while not an established national religion, is considered part of the national identity; and the Georgian constitution does acknowledge Georgian Orthodoxy’s special role in the nation.
Father Akaki Chelidze, a Camillian father who serves as chancellor of the Apostolic Administration of the Caucasus, told CNA that the Orthodox Church in Georgia has always considered itself the “necessary glue to keep the nation together.”
And this is probably why it considers other religious denominations as “rivals, or even obstacles, for the unity of the country.”
In Georgia, Pope Francis also said Mass for Latin Catholics, Armenians and Assyrian-Chaldeans on the feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the patroness of missions.
St. Therese, he said, serves as a reminder “that the real mission is never proselytism, but attraction to Christ from a strong union with him in prayer, adoration and concrete charity, which is service to Jesus present in the least of our brothers.”
The Pope said the religious men and women he met in Tbilisi, Georgia, as well as in Baku, Azerbaijan, all exemplified “prayer and charitable and promotional works.”
“I encouraged them to be steadfast in the faith, with memory, courage and hope,” he said. “And then there are the Christian families: How precious it is, their present reception, accompaniment, discernment and integration into the community!”
While visiting the Patriarchal Cathedral in Georgia, Francis prayed for peace in Syria, Iraq and throughout the Middle East with the Assyrian-Chaldeans, who are one of the most persecuted communities there.
“This style of evangelical presence as the seed of the kingdom of God is, if anything, even more necessary in Azerbaijan,” Pope Francis said, “where the majority of the population are Muslims and Catholics are a few hundred.”
Thankfully, the Catholics in Azerbaijan have a good relationship with everyone, in particular Orthodox Christians, the Pope noted.
He said that in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, there were two moments of faith that showed a proper balance of prayer and ecumenism: the celebration of the Eucharist in the Mass and an interreligious meeting.
“In this perspective, addressing myself to the Azerbaijani authorities, I hope that the open questions can find good solutions and all Caucasian peoples may live in peace and in mutual respect,” the Pope said.
“The Eucharist with the Catholic community, where the Spirit harmonizes the different languages and gives strength to the witness,” he said is key, adding that this communion in Christ “does not impede” relations, but “in fact pushes one to try to meet and have a dialogue with all those who believe in God, to jointly build a more just and fraternal world.”