Orthodox Christians shun Papal Mass in Georgia

Reuters | Updated at 12:50pm on October 02, 2016

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Pope Francis leads the Holy Mass at the Meskhi Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia October 1, 2016. – Reuters photo

Pope Francis on Saturday said Mass for an unusually small crowd of just a few thousand Catholics in Georgia, a celebration that was further dampened when a delegation from the Orthodox Church stayed away.

Ex-Soviet Georgia is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian and less than 1 percent of the population is Catholic, according to government figures.

Still, organisers had been hoping for a much bigger turnout than the some 3,000 people who came to the Mass at a stadium in the capital that has a capacity of 25,000.

It was one of the smallest crowds ever seen at an outdoor papal Mass on Francis' 16 foreign trips so far.

In another setback, a delegation representing the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, that the Vatican had expected to come to the worship service, did not show up.

The Georgian Orthodox Church is one of the more conservative in the worldwide Orthodox community and has an extreme right wing that is totally opposed to any dialogue aimed at reunion with the 1.2 billion member Catholic Church.

The Orthodox Church, which now numbers about 250 million adherents, split with Rome in the 1054 schism that divided Christianity into eastern and western branches.

A small group of right-wing Georgian members have dogged the pope at every stop to protest against the visit, carrying signs reading: ‘Vatican is a spiritual aggressor’ and ‘Pope, arch-heretic, you are not welcome in Orthodox Georgia.’

In an apparent effort to allay their fears, Francis told a meeting of priests and nuns that they should not feel like they had a mission to convert Orthodox worshippers, saying this would be ‘a great sin’.

‘Never try to practice proselytism against the Orthodox (church). They are our brothers and sisters,’ he said.

Despite the theological differences between the two Churches, Francis had three cordial meetings with the ailing, 83 year-old Patriarch Ilia.

At the last event in Georgia, he went to the riverside town of Mtskheta, 20 km (12.5 miles) from Tbilisi, to meet Ilia in the 11th-century Svetitskhoveli cathedral, the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

There, Ilia expressed his ‘deep esteem and fraternal love’ for the pope.

Under Francis, who was elected in 2013, the Vatican has made a concerted effort to improve relations with Orthodox Christians in the hopes of an eventual reunion.

Earlier this year, he held a historic meeting with Kirill, the patriarch of the Kremlin-back Russian Orthodox Church, the largest and most influential in world Orthodoxy.

Francis leaves on Sunday for a day-long stop in overwhelmingly Muslim Azerbaijan before returning to Rome.

Pope Francis has said Mass in a largely empty stadium on a visit to Georgia after the majority Orthodox Christian Church asked followers to stay away.

Orthodox believers were asked not to take part in Roman Catholic services and a Church delegation due to attend also stayed away.

But Church officials said the decision had been taken by mutual agreement.

It was one of the smallest crowds seen at an outdoor papal Mass during Francis's foreign trips.

People who did attend in the capital Tbilisi said afterwards that the papal visit was good for Georgia.

‘This is a very significant event, both for the country and for faithful from the whole Catholic parish,’ Keti Khitarikhvili told Reuters news agency.

‘He is a true pope, he is not just a religious figure, but also a very political figure. Because I think that with this visit, the role of Georgia will be raised measurably on the world stage.’

With a Roman Catholic population of under one per cent, it was not an obvious destination but the Pope has made a point of reaching out to Orthodox churches to overcome doctrinal differences which split the two communities in the 11th Century.

The late Pope John Paul II visited Georgia in 1999, and he was treated as the Vatican head of state, rather than a religious leader.

Georgia, a small country (population 4.3 million) in the Caucasus Mountains, shares an Orthodox culture with the regional superpower, Russia, but the two fought a brief war in 2008.

Vatican attempts to mend ties with the Russian Church have so far not resulted in a papal visit there. On the other hand, Georgia aspires to join the EU and Nato.

According to the Associated Press, only a few thousand people attended the Mass in the Meshki stadium, which has a capacity of 25,000.

The Orthodox patriarchate said on its website: ‘As long as there are dogmatic differences between our churches, Orthodox believers will not participate in their prayers’.

One Georgian priest told AP it was a protest against Catholic attempts to convert Orthodox Christians.

‘Can you imagine how it would be if a Sunni [Muslim] preacher came to Shia [Muslim] Iran and conducted prayers in a stadium or somewhere else?’ Father David Klividze asked. ‘Such a thing could not be.’

Nonetheless, the Church leader, Patriarch Ilia, had welcomed Pope Francis on Friday as his ‘dear brother’ and toasted him saying ‘May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome’.

Georgian president Georgy Margvelashvili did attend the Mass. Other politicians may have stayed away because of forthcoming elections, for fear of upsetting devout voters.

On Sunday, the Pope is due to visit neighbouring Azerbaijan, which has fewer than 300 Catholics in its overwhelmingly Muslim population.

However, religious coexistence is a major theme for Pope Francis who visited Muslim-majority Turkey in November 2014.