Pope embarks on peace mission to Caucasus


Rome (AFP)

Pope Francis set off Friday for Georgia and Azerbaijan on what Vatican officials billed as a mission to promote peace in a troubled part of the world, three months after he visited neighbouring Armenia.

"The holy father will be bringing a message of peace and reconciliation for the whole Caucasus region," his spokesman Greg Burke told reporters. The official theme of the trip is "Pax vobis" (peace for you).

After taking off from Rome just after 0700 GMT, Francis was due to touch down four hours later in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, a country with one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world.

He will be greeted there by President Giorgi Margvelashvili and the current leader of the Georgian Orthodox church, Patriarch Ilia II.

Francis is due Sunday in Azerbaijan, where he will meet with, among others, President Ilham Aliyev, just days after the authoritarian leader won a referendum on constitutional changes seen as consolidating his grip on power.

While in the oil and gas-rich country, Francis is expected to reiterate the call he made in Armenia for a peaceful resolution of the long-simmering conflict over the disputed region of Nagorny-Karabach.

Officially part of Azerbaijan, the territory has been under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists since 1994, when a war between the two countries ended in a ceasefire but no formal peace accord.

Since then, there have been sporadic outbursts of violence, including one in April that left 110 people dead.

- Steps to peace -

Ilia, 83, has overseen a post-Soviet revival of a church which claims the loyalty of more than 80 percent of Georgia's 4.9 million population.

Its leader is a conservative figure known for some controversial views, including that homosexuality is a disease that should be treated like drug addiction.

Georgia was one of the cradles of early Christianity and one of Jesus's apostles, Andrew, is credited with spreading the faith to the territories that make up modern Georgia.

The country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and is now targeting closer relations with the European Union in a process its diplomats hope will be "pushed a step forward" by the papal visit.

Inter-faith dialogue and reconciliation with the various branches of Orthodox Catholicism have been dominant themes of Francis's papacy.

And he will be seeking to strengthen relations with the Georgian church against a backdrop of lingering tensions over the fate of ancient churches that were once the property of the Catholic church but were transferred to Orthodox ownership under Soviet rule.

Francis himself explained the purpose of his visit in June, shortly after he returned from Armenia.

"I accepted the invitation to visit these two countries for two reasons: to emphasise the ancient Christian roots of these lands in a spirit of dialogue with other religions and cultures and to encourage hopes and the paths of peace," he said.

"History teaches us that peace requires great tenacity and continual steps forward, starting with little ones that become bigger as we each move towards meeting each other."