Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, hailed the visit of Pope Francis to Georgia as “really a historic event” and expressed hope it would “further strengthen our relations.”
During a meeting at the Georgian Patriarchate, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church said that he and Pope Francis “promised each other that we will pray for each other.”
Pope Francis, who started a two-day visit to Georgia on September 30 before traveling to Azerbaijan on October 2, thanked the Georgian Patriarch “for this fraternal promise to pray for each other, after having given each other kiss of peace.”
Addressing to the Pope as “my beloved brother”, Patriarch Ilia II said: “We had many problems as well and it should also be noted that those problems have been overcome with god’s blessing.”
“The humankind faces a huge problem today,” the Georgian Patriarch continued, “and that is globalization process.”
“The globalization in itself is not negative, but it contains a huge threat of making the entire world homogeneous, turning the world into homogeneous country,” he said.
“The humankind made great strides in science, technology, culture and at the same time huge steps backward have also been made in religion and also from the spiritual point of view and that’s the threat we are facing,” Patriarch Ilia II.
“Georgia faces also new problems today,” he continued. “Almost 500,000 people are refugees in their own country.”
“Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region [South Ossetia] are occupied. These regions are ancient Georgian lands. I was metropolitan [bishop] of Abkhazia for 11 years [in 1970s] and there has never been a conflict between Abkhazians and Georgians; this is an artificially created conflict. We believe that these problems will be solved. What is important is to overcome spiritual problems,” the Georgian Patriarch said.
“Like in the entire world, in the country too there is a deficit of faith and love,” he said.
Patriarch Ilia II thanked the Pope for giving possibility to the Georgian researchers to work on Georgia-related manuscripts stored in the Vatican archives. “We will also be grateful if you further contribute to this scientific work,” the Georgian Patriarch told the Pope.
The Pope told the Georgian Patriarch: “I want to be a genuine friend to this land and its beloved people.”
He said “divine providence… faced with the world thirsting for mercy, unity and peace, asks us to renew our commitment to the bonds, which exist between us, of which our kiss of peace and our fraternal embrace are already an eloquent sign.”
“Dear Brother, let us allow the lord Jesus to look upon us anew, let us once again experience the attraction of his call to leave everything that prevents us from proclaiming together his presence,” Pope Francis told Patriarch Ilia II.
After citing a 12th-century Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, Pope Francis said that “the love of the Lord enables us to rise above the misunderstandings of the past, above the calculations of the present and fears for the future.”
Pope Francis met earlier on Friday afternoon with President Giorgi Margvelashvili and then addressed representatives from the Georgian authorities and diplomatic corps at the presidential palace.
After the meeting with the Georgian Patriarch, the Pope met the Assyrian-Chaldean community at the Catholic Chaldean Church of St. Simon Bar Sabbae, where he offered prayer for peace.
On Saturday morning Pope Francis will celebrate 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. In the evening he 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.
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 on September 30, 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.
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.
Long-standing dispute over ownership of several churches in Georgia persist between the two Churches 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.