Pope urges dialogue to end Georgian-Russian territorial stalemate

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

TBILISI, Georgia (CNS) — Subtly acknowledging Georgia’s
ongoing territorial dispute with Russia, Pope Francis urged greater efforts to
sow peace throughout the Caucasus region.

Shortly after arriving in Tbilisi at the start of his 16th
foreign trip, the pope met privately with Georgian President Giorgi
Margvelashvili Sept. 30 and, with the president, he addressed a small gathering
of civic leaders and members of the diplomatic corps outside the presidential

In a nation where more than 230,000 people are still
displaced by the ongoing Georgian-Russian dispute over control of South
Ossetia, the pope said it was time to find a way for the displaced to return to
their homes and for respect for the “sovereign rights” of each
nation. Only Russia and a handful of other nations recognize the supposed
independence of South Ossetia.

The theme the government and local church chose for the
pope’s visit Sept. 30-Oct. 1 was “pax vobis,” “peace be with

Margvelashvili was more blunt than the pope. Georgia, he
said, “is still victim of a military aggression on the part of another
state: 20 percent of our territory is occupied and 15 percent of the population
is displaced. Their homes were taken only because they are ethnically

“Only 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) from here, there is
barbed wire that prevents a peaceful population — neighbors and relatives —
from having a relationship with each other,” the president said.
“Only 40 kilometers from here, each day human beings witness violence,
kidnappings, murders and offenses that deeply wound dignity.”

The return of displaced people is the government’s primary
concern, he said. “Human beings should not have to suffer because of
political situations and they have a right to return to their own homes.”

Pope Francis urged the people of the region to make
concerted efforts to respect their cultural and ethnic differences, giving
everyone a chance “to coexist peacefully in their homeland or freely to
return to that land if, for some reason, they have been forced to leave

“The peaceful coexistence among all peoples and states
in the region is the indispensable and prior condition for such authentic and
enduring progress,” the pope told the country’s leaders.

Georgia, which had been part of the Soviet Union, has been
working for 25 years to build democracy and promote development. Pope Francis
said he hoped the process would continue, increasingly involving all sectors of
society to ensure “stability, justice and respect for the rule of

Both the pope and the president emphasized Georgia’s
“European” identity, but also it’s geographical location and historic
role as a meeting place of Asia and Europe. Over Russian objections, Georgia
has been trying to join the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization;
it has belonged to the Council of Europe since 1999.

The formal meetings took place after a brief airport
welcoming ceremony. The president and patriarch were at the airport to welcome
the pope, as were a boy and girl, who offered him a basket of grapes.

Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II, bowed by age and
Parkinson’s disease, stood next to each other as the Vatican and Georgian
national anthems were played.

Leaving the airport, the papal motorcade passed two groups
of Orthodox faithful protesting the pope’s visit. The groups held signs written
in English. One said, “Pope arch heretic. You are not welcome in Orthodox
Georgia.” The other said, “Vatican is a spiritual aggressor.”

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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