Pope Francis set off on a three-day trip to the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan Friday, in what Vatican officials have described as a mission to promote “peace and reconciliation” in a troubled part of the world.
In June, Pope Francis himself explained the purpose of his visit, saying that the trip would emphasize “the ancient Christian roots of these lands,” while encouraging peace through a spirit of dialogue with other religions and cultures.
Georgia does indeed have deep Christian roots, as it was only the second nation in the world—after Armenia—to adopt Christianity as its official religion in the early 4th century AD.
The Georgian Orthodox Church traces its origins back to the preaching of the Apostle Andrew, brother to Simon Peter, who allegedly preached Christianity in the ancient Georgian kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia.
In his very first address after touching down in Georgia, Pope Francis immediately turned to the question of the country’s Christian heritage, noting that from the beginning of the fourth century, Georgia “discovered in Christianity its deepest identity and the solid foundation of its values.”
Saint John Paul II had said that Christianity was the “seed of successive flowerings of Georgian culture,” to which Pope Francis added that “this seed continues to bear fruit.”
Speaking later on before the Georgian Patriarch and church officials, Francis also recalled the “glorious history of the Gospel” in Georgia, recalling the nation’s many saints and martyrs. He also stressed that in order to keep being fruitful, Christians must “remain firm in the Lord and united with one another,” while also promising his prayers for the Orthodox Church in the country.
The Pope’s message regarding Georgia’s Christian roots was central to his speeches Friday, but he also touched on other themes of critical importance to his hearers.
In a veiled, critical reference to Russian aggression in the area, Francis told state authorities and members of the diplomatic corps that peaceful coexistence among all peoples and states in the region requires goodwill, but also “respect for the sovereign rights of every country within the framework of international law.”
While avoiding mentioning Islamic terrorism by name, the Pope availed himself of the occasion to once again denounce it, saying that in the present historical moment there is “no shortage of violent extremism that manipulates and distorts civic and religious principles, and subjugates them to the dark designs of domination and death.”
Pope Francis left Rome just after 7:00 AM Friday, and touched down four hours later in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
On Sunday, he will travel to Azerbaijan, where he will meet with President Ilham Aliyev, among others. The president has been sharply criticized for what many consider his autocratic style, and he recently won a referendum on constitutional changes that will consolidate his political hold on the country.
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