Francis' Caucasus tour a chance to bridge the gap between East and West

Francis' Caucasus tour a chance to bridge the gap between East and West

The Pope’s three-day visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan this weekend marks the latest papal initiative to foster dialogue and understanding in the world’s troubled regions. 

With just under 300 Catholics, a Muslim population of more than 90 per cent and a president accused of appalling human rights abuses, Azerbaijan is not an obvious location for a papal visit. But for Pope Francis, who visits the country on Sunday, it is part of his plan to bring peace and reconciliation to the “east-meets-west” Caucasus region, a part of the world riddled with military conflicts yet given little attention by western media. Azerbaijan has been in a long-running battle with Armenia. Fr Stefan Kormancik, a Salesian from Slovakia who is one of six priests serving in the country, explained that Francis’ trip was a “very important step for reconciliation” and would help re-balance perceptions that he might be siding with Armenia given he had visited there first. Despite the tiny number of Catholics in the country, the Pope’s one-day visit to the Azerbaijan capital of Baku is expected to get wall-to-wall coverage by state-run television outlets with thousands turning out to see him. Kormancik explained that many in the Muslim country, which has a secular constitution, revere the Pope as a “holy man”. 

While in Baku the Pope will meet with the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus region, Allahshukur Pashazade - a man considered one of most influential Muslims in the world -  and then take part in an interfaith encounter with representatives of different religious communities in the country.

Different faiths peacefully co-exist in Azerbaijan with the Catholic Church officially recognised by the state in 2002, following John Paul II’s visit there. And while the country’s population is predominantly Shia Muslim, women enjoy the same legal rights as men.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, said: “Following in the footsteps of Pope Saint John Paul II, who visited Armenia in 2001, Georgia in November 1999 and Azerbaijan in May 2002, the Holy Father carries with him, to the Caucasus, a message of peace and harmony among the nations, together with a word of encouragement for the Catholic communities present in the three countries, where they constitute a rather small minority. In addition, these visits to the region help deepen relations with the Georgian Orthodox Church, while facilitating interreligious dialogue in Azerbaijan.”

Archbishop Paul Gallagher

In Georgia, which has Christian roots dating back to 320 AD, Francis will today visit the Orthodox cathedral in Mtshketa and meet with the country’s Patriarch Ilia II. They will not, however, pray together as the Georgians are the most sceptical members of the Orthodox family when it comes to dialogue with Rome: last week they refused to give their full assent to a major Catholic-Orthodox document seeking to overcome historical disagreements between the two Churches. 

Georgia still scarred by a war with Russia in 2008 over the disputed South Ossetia region. “My hope is that the Pope’s visit will put Georgia back into the international horizon again. Since 2008 our war has not really been in the news,” Tamara Grdzelidze, the Georgian Ambassador to the Holy See told The Tablet. And she was fully expecting the Pope to mention the importance of her country’s “territorial integrity”. 

The 50,000 strong Catholic community in Georgia includes those from the Syro-Chaldean Church and the Pope is to meet with them at the church of St Simon the Tanner, in a liturgy including prayers for peace in Syria and Iraq. Francis will also be using this weekend’s visit to highlight Christian-Muslim dialogue with the good relations between the Christian country of Georgia and Azerbaijan a case in point.