Pope Francis started a two-day visit to Georgia on Friday afternoon during which he will meet the President, Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, preside over a Mass at a stadium and travel to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta before heading to Azerbaijan on Sunday morning.
Pope Francis arrived at the Tbilisi international airport at 3pm local time on Friday, where he was welcomed by President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II.
After a welcoming ceremony at the airport in presence of Parliament Speaker Davit Usupashvili, Tbilisi Mayor Davit Narmania as well as several government ministers, the Pope headed to the presidential palace for a meeting with President Margvelashvili.
After the meeting, the Pope and the President will address representatives of the government, civil society and diplomatic corps at the presidential palace.
Today I leave for Georgia and Azerbaijan. Please accompany me with your prayers so we can sow peace, unity and reconciliation together.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) September 30, 2016
Pope Francis will then meet Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, at the Georgian patriarchate later on Friday afternoon.
In the evening the Pope will meet with the Assyrian-Chaldean community at the Catholic Chaldean Church of St. Simon Bar Sabbae.
On the second day of the visit, Pope Francis will celebrate on Saturday morning a Mass at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Tbilisi, which has the capacity of over 25,000.
On the same day he will also visit the Roman Catholic cathedral in Tbilisi and then meet charity workers at the Assistance Centre of the Camillian Order.
On Saturday evening Pope Francis will go to Mtskheta, one of Georgia’s oldest towns close to Tbilisi, to visit the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, where he will be welcomed by the Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II.
The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told the Vatican Television Centre that Pope Francis visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan, which comes after his trip to Armenia in June, should be viewed as a mission for peace and unity in this troubled area of the world.
It is the second time a pope visits Georgia.
Pope John Paul II visited Tbilisi in November, 1999 and celebrated Mass at the Sports Palace.
According to the Georgian state statistics office, during 2014 population census 19,200 people described themselves as Catholics – that is 0.5% of Georgia’s 3.7 million population.
A small radical Orthodox group, among them several Orthodox priests, rallied outside the Vatican embassy in Tbilisi on September 21 to protest against the Pope’s visit; some where holding posters, reading: “The Vatican is a spiritual aggressor” and “Antichrist stay away from Georgia”. The same group rallied outside the Tbilisi airport when the Pope arrived.
The Georgian Orthodox Church released a written statement on September 28, distancing itself from the group by saying that such stance was “completely unacceptable”; in the same statement, the Georgian Patriarchate, also reiterated that it will not engage in ecumenical prayer service with Catholics.
One week after this protest rally, the Georgian Orthodox Church released a written statement, distancing itself from the group by saying that such stance was “completely unacceptable”; in the same statement, the Georgian Patriarchate, also reiterated that it will not engage in ecumenical prayer service with Catholics.
“His Holiness, Pope Francis I will be visiting Georgia upon the invitation of the President of Georgia and Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia [Ilia II]. The Georgian Patriarchate will welcome the guest with respect and it hopes that the visit will contribute to deepening of multifaceted relationship and strengthening of peace in the region,” the Patriarchate said in a written statement on September 28.
“At the same time we want to declare as completely unacceptable strongly negative statements voiced publicly over the upcoming visit [of the Pope] by some spiritual figures of the Georgian Orthodox Church; we want to call on them and on everyone for calm,” the Patriarchate said.
“We also note that links between us and the Roman Catholic Church in terms of Eucharistic Prayer have been cut since the Middle Ages and, according to ecclesiastical law, the Orthodox believers are not taking part in their [Catholics’] religious services as long as doctrinal differences persist.”
“The Pope will celebrate a Mass [at the stadium] for Catholics and, contrary to some views, it cannot be regarded as an expression of proselytism,” the Georgian Patriarchate said.
Long-standing dispute over ownership of several churches in Georgia persist and the local Catholic community has been involved in legal battle with the mayor’s office in the town of Rustavi, close to Tbilisi, which has been reluctant to issue a permit on construction of the Catholic church in the town because of fear not to anger the Georgian Orthodox Church constituents. In early June, 2016 City Court of Rustavi ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by Caucasus Apostolic Administration of Latin Rite Catholics, which was asking the Rustavi City Hall for a construction permit.
In September, 2014 then Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See Archbishop Dominique Mamberti visited Tbilisi – the first visit of Vatican’s foreign minister to Georgia in eleven years.
Before that the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, the post which at the time was held by Jean-Louis Tauran, visited Tbilisi in September, 2003 to sign an interstate agreement giving the Catholic Church in Georgia legal status. But in a last-minute decision, yielding to pressure from the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Georgian authorities made U-turn and refused to sign the agreement. In 2011, despite protests from the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Georgian authorities adopted law allowing religious minority groups to be registered as legal entities under public law, which, among others, was also used by several branches of the Roman Catholic Church in Georgia. Adoption of the legislation was welcomed by the Vatican.