War and Peace: Pope Francis Journeys to the Caucasus, a Christian-Muslim Crossroads


The Palace of the Shirvanshahs is located in the Inner City of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
The Palace of the Shirvanshahs is located in the Inner City of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. (photo: Wikipedia/Urek Meniashvili/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pope Francis is journeying to an enchanting place this weekend — magical, multiethnic, multi-faith and intermittently dangerous.

Knowing a bit about the geography and history of Georgia and Azerbaijan, where the Holy Father will be Sept. 30-Oct. 2, plus Armenia, where he journeyed June 24-26, helps explain the complex sensitivities and long history linking the three countries.

The region, known as the Caucasus, is a thick isthmus between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. A dramatic mountain range runs diagonally through the landmass. South of the mountains are three small countries in Pope Francis’ headlights: Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

For centuries, this land has been a zone of conflict and contest.

It’s essential to look at a map: Iran and Turkey border the region on the south. Russia rules to the north.

Thus these three little countries are surrounded by historically great powers. Not surprising, the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire — and their successor states — have coveted and traded control of this territory for centuries.


Ancient Christian Nations

Georgia and Armenia are the world’s oldest Christian nations.

Christianity was adopted by the early Georgian state of Iberia in 337— even before it became the official Church of the Roman Empire (in 380). According to tradition, Sts. Simon and Andrew the Apostles preached in the Caucasus in the first century.

Present-day Georgia thrived in the fourth and fifth centuries, when its written language was developed in order to translate the Bible, but it was not unified as one state. The Orthodox Church of Georgia became a self-governing (autocephalous) Church in the sixth century, independent of the Church of Antioch.

Throughout the centuries, whether facing Mongol invasion or Soviet occupation, the Georgian Orthodox Church has been the guardian of national identity and culture. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, the Kingdom of Georgia’s “Golden Age,” the country spanned the isthmus and developed stunning architecture, literature and ecclesiastical art.

Neighboring Armenia is considered the first state to adopt Christianity. In 301, King Tiridates of Armenia adopted Christianity for his nation, supposedly after being cured of an illness by St. Gregory the Illuminator, founder and first patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Historians argue King Tiridates’ decision was also a smart way to unify the country.


Church Protects Identity

As is true in Georgia, deep commitment to faith and the Church itself has been crucial to Armenian preservation of identity — including the trauma of living through the “20th century’s first genocide,” in Pope Francis’ words.

In both countries, the vast majority of citizens belong to their respective Churches.

Despite shared Christian values, though, the Orthodox Church of Georgia (a Byzantine-rite faith) and the Armenian Apostolic Church (an Oriental Orthodox Church) are not especially close — communion was formally ruptured in 607, and rivalry has never been fully put to rest.

In addition, the two Churches have very different relationships to the Catholic Church.

The Georgian Orthodox Church has been unwilling to engage in ecumenical discussions toward greater Christian unity. Last June, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, 83, withdrew from a historical pan-Orthodox council after rejecting a draft document on ecumenism. In 2013, he pulled his Church out of the World Council of Churches.

Earlier this month, Georgia took issue with the Catholic-Orthodox Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue’s final document, although the Russian Orthodox Church, an ally, endorsed it.

In contrast, the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church have excellent relations. For that matter, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Catholic Church (representing about 5% of Armenians worldwide) are close collaborators.

Last year, in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis celebrated Mass with all the Armenian Catholicoi (Church leaders) to mark the centennial of the Armenian genocide. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan also attended.


Persian Influence

From the first to the 19th century, territory in the Caucasus was intermittently controlled by the powerful Persian Empire. This history is further complicated by intermarriage, as the Iranian Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) included ethnic Georgians.

Its power base was centered in the Caucasus, including present-day Azerbaijan, Armenia and eastern Georgia. (The Ottoman Empire held western Georgia, on the Black Sea.)

At its height, the huge territory controlled by the Safavid shahs stretched from the Caucasus to Afghanistan.

The most important legacy left to Azerbaijan from this period was religion: the establishment of Shiite Islam as the empire’s official belief and practice.

In fact, what mobilized military expansion was the desire to spread Shiite Islam as opposed to Sunni Islam, which advanced with the Ottoman Turks.

The dispute between Shiite and Sunni belief turns on rival interpretations of who should have inherited power after Muhammad.

Today, Azerbaijan is one of four Shiite-majority countries. The others are Bahrain, Iraq and Iran.


Russian Power

Who knows about the Russo-Persian Wars of 1813 and 1828? Anybody? Long story short: Russia won both and, as formalized in the Treaty of Turkmenchay, took control of the Caucasus.

Although some Georgians expected Russia, as an Orthodox brother, to be a more sympathetic master than Muslim Persia, the Russians proceeded to try to suppress the Georgian Church — imposing Church Slavonic on the Georgian liturgy, whitewashing precious frescos and appointing a Russian bishop who spoke no Georgian to run the Church. The local population was not at all happy.

As a result of Russia’s annexation of two Armenian provinces, Yerevan and Kars, many Muslims decided to move to Iran, while some ethnic Armenians in Iran moved to the Caucasus. Czarist officials treated the Catholicos of the Apostolic Church as the leader of the Armenian community, in contrast to Ottoman leadership, which controlled six Armenian provinces. The Turks disregarded the Armenian Church, assigning the Greek patriarch of Constantinople authority over the Armenian community. As the Turkish slaughter of Armenians unfolded in 1915, some made it to the relative safety of the Caucasus under Russian protection.

The Azeri people were divided between Russia and Iran as a result of new borders created by the treaties ending the Russo-Persian wars. Many Muslims migrated south, but those who stayed found that the Russians did not involve themselves much in local affairs. Until, that is, petroleum was discovered in Azerbaijan in 1870 and new wealth created a gap between Russian and Western developers and the local Muslim workforce.

When Bolsheviks murdered Czar Nicholas II in 1917, the indigenous people of the Caucasus moved quickly to declare independence.

First, Armenian and Georgian intellectuals founded the Transcaucasian Republic, but it fell apart. So the three national groups found separate solutions.

The Azeri people declared the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which survived until 1920, when the Red Army essentially reconquered the young state. Similar fates met the short-lived Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Mountaneous Armenia and the Democratic Republic of Georgia.

All three countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922 as republics, with some power of local governance. In each place, faith served to help protect national identity. Each finally threw off Russian control in 1991: With the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia declared independence. It was not hard to recover national culture and religious traditions because Soviet ideology never managed to crush ethnicity or faith in the Caucasus.


Politics Today

The post-communist road has been marked by strife on the beautiful Caucasian isthmus.

Among the violent territorial disputes since 1991, the most disruptive has been the Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which killed approximately 3,000 people between 1988 and 1994 and led to the displacement of more than 1 million residents, and flared again last spring.

Also, the war in Abkhazia (1992-93) between Georgia and Abkhaz separatists, the First (1994-96) and Second (1999-2009) Chechen Wars (probably the most deadly conflicts) and the South Ossetia War, between Georgia and Russia (2008), are manifestations of ongoing disputes.

Russia remains a powerful force in Caucasian political and economic life. So does Iran, through its long-standing alliance with Azerbaijan.

Thankfully, there are positive signs.

The Orthodox Church in Georgia, undoubtedly feisty, is also healthy and relevant.

Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II is considered the most trusted man in Georgia, according to CNN and national polls.

Almost 10 years ago, he spurred a baby boom by offering to personally preside over all baptisms. His compositions of sacred music have contributed to a nationwide revival in choral music. He was the man most trusted to negotiate with the Russians to conclude the 2008 war.

In Azerbaijan, religious harmony prevails between Shiite and Sunni Muslims — and other religions, as well.

The largest mosque in the southern Caucasus, Heydar Mosque in Baku, has offered shared prayers on Fridays since the beginning of 2016, during which the two main branches of Islam pray together. Imams from each tradition alternate leadership.

Christians and Jews, who comprise only about 5% of the Azerbaijani population, describe the country as tolerant and calm.

In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin helped negotiate a new peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

What is worrisome is that some American analysts also believe the Russian government uses arms sales to the two protagonists to maintain influence over them.

This week, a major arms fair, featuring 260 companies, concludes in Baku the very day Pope Francis arrives in Tbilisi. Aggressive regional powerhouse Turkey will participate with 42 companies.


Pope Francis: ‘Building Bridges of Peace and Harmony’

How to respond to the endless escalation of weapons in the region?

Pope Francis will gather Syro-Chaldean (Catholic) bishops from around the world to pray for peace in Iraq and Syria on his first day in Georgia.

Catholics comprise tiny minorities in Georgia (2.4%) and Azerbaijan (less than 1%), but as Pope Francis’ June trip to Armenia demonstrated, people who have endured national tragedy, persecution and external control are especially responsive to the encouragement of a holy man.

St. John Paul II had the luxury of visiting each country in the region one by one: Georgia in 1999; Armenia in 2001; and Azerbaijan in 2002 — the sky wasn’t falling then.

Pope Francis brings the Good News of love and mutual obligation in a far more urgent context: The crisis in Syria and Iraq, the difficulty of check-mating the radical Islamic State, war between Sunni and Shiite and the genocide of Christians.

Father Gabriel Quicke, an official in Rome at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity who helped prepare the Pope’s successful trip to Armenia, reminded the Register, “Never forget: The Pope is not just the Holy Father, but the Pontifex Maximus, the greatest builder of bridges, building bridges of peace and harmony.”

Victor Gaetan is an award-winning

senior international correspondent for the Register

 and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.