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 “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 percent of Georgians adhere – and the Roman Catholic Church, which constitutes only one percent 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.
Fr. 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.”
(Story continues below)
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“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 Holy Mass and an inter-religious 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.