Pope Francis steers clear of controversy during visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan

By bne IntelliNews October 3, 2016

Pope Francis trod a thin line during his visits to Georgia and Azerbaijan between September 30 and October 2, avoiding taking a stance on controversial regional issues like Russian influence and human rights. The visit follows a stopover in Armenia in June, during which the pontiff adopted a much more controversial tone by calling the killings of Armenians in 1915 a genocide and sparking Ankara's ire.

Catholics are a minority in both Georgia and Azerbaijan. In Christian Orthodox Georgia, they represent a mere 0.5% of the population; in Shi'a Muslim Azerbaijan, there are only a few hundred local Catholics. Right-wing Christian Orthodox groups protested outside the Italian embassy in  the capital city of Tbilisi before the visit and at the international airport, where the pope's plane landed on September 30,  hurling insults at the Catholic church and its head. Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Orthodox church, welcomed the pontiff and sought to distance his church from the extremist demonstrators.

However, the Orthodox church also gave into pressure from conservative Orthodox groups, leaving the pontiff to conduct a Saturday morning mass alone in an almost empty 25,000-seat stadium in Tbilisi. During his visit, Pope Francis also met with Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and representatives of the diplomatic corps and public institutions.

He only vaguely touched upon the more controversial topics of Russian occupation of Georgian territories and gay marriage, both widely debated in Georgia. Regarding the former, he emphasised people's right to “coexist peacefully in their homeland or freely return to that land, if for some reason they have been forced to leave it”, a veiled criticism of Russia, Georgia's northern neighbour, which has occupied the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for over two decades. As for the latter, he did not address homosexuality directly, but criticised “ideological colonisation” by the West, a phrase he had used in the past to refer to foreign influence on traditional values.

Gay marriage is a controversial topic in Georgia, where the Christian Orthodox church has spearheaded a campaign against homosexuality, in opposition to a budding gay rights movement in the country. Earlier this year, there were pressures on the administration to more clearly define marriage as a “union between a man and a woman” in the constitution, which did not materialise. Members of sexual minorities have reported various instances of abuse and pressure from extremist groups in the country.

Meanwhile, critics of the administration of President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan were hoping that the pontiff would raise human rights issues during his visit on October 2. However, Pope Francis refrained from criticising a country that is deemed a dictatorship by most human rights watchdogs. Instead, he praised Azerbaijan for its sustained track record of interfaith dialogue, something in which the secular administration in Baku takes pride.

Aliyev boosted his grip on power by proposing some two-dozen constitutional amendments that would extend his term and enable him to directly appoint his successors. Baku says that the changes were popular with voters at a referendum on September 26, over 80% of whom had approved them. Throughout August and September, Azerbaijani authorities have interrogated, detained and arrested hundreds of opposition activists throughout the country that had denounced the referendum.

Baku was hoping that Pope Francis would speak to the war with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but the pontiff refrained from taking sides instead advising the two countries to take every opportunity available for a peaceful resolution of the dispute. He denounced extremism and radical attitudes as “furthest from the living God” and, in what could be construed as a veiled criticism of Baku, emphasised the importance of not "abusing the rights of others who have different ideas and perspectives".

Upon his return to the Vatican on October 2, he told reporters that he would travel to Portugal and likely India and Bangladesh in 2017. 

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