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Georgia: Pope Will Reach Out To Orthodox Church

  • Michael Gallant



Pope John Paul II heads to the Orthodox republic of Georgia next week after spending this weekend in mostly Hindu India. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Gallant looks at the pope's trip and what the Vatican hopes to accomplish.

Prague, 5 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul's upcoming visit to Georgia is a mission with two purposes.

Next week's two-day trip is an immediate bid to strengthen dialogue with the Orthodox Christian churches. By improving ties with the Orthodox churches, the pope also hopes to make an eventual journey to Russia.

In the waning years of his now 21-year papacy, the pope has made an extra effort to reach out to other faiths. He visited Romania in May, his first visit to a country with an Orthodox Christian majority. Today, the 79-year-old pontiff begins a journey to India, a country where Roman Catholics are only a tiny minority.

The pope is hoping to give a new boost to missionary work in Asia, the continent with the smallest proportion of Roman Catholics. But hardline Hindus are strongly opposed to the trip. They have severely criticized the church for what they say has been the forced conversion of Hindus, and for atrocities the church allegedly committed against Indians several hundred years ago.

When the pope leaves India on Monday, he will stop off in predominantly Orthodox Georgia to begin a 30-hour visit. The office of the patriarchate in Tbilisi has said the pope's visit is ill-timed considering the current tensions in the Caucasus. The patriarchate says it was not involved in the official planning of the trip.

During the trip to Romania in the spring, the pope and Patriarch Theoctist participated in ecumenical ceremonies and both Eastern rite and Latin masses. The pope, in a very unusual gesture to the leader of a different faith, even shared his personal car, the "popemobile," with the patriarch. When that trip was over, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the journey had opened the way for better relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.

In Georgia, the pope will meet Patriarch Ilia II, and will celebrate Mass at the indoor Sport Palace, but no joint services or prayers are planned. Our correspondent in Tbilisi reports that many Orthodox priests and bishops oppose the visit because they fear it may convince Orthodox followers to convert to Catholicism, which has about 50,000 followers in Georgia. He reports that on recent Sundays a group of Orthodox priests and their followers have been gathering near a bridge in Tbilisi and praying that the pope does not make the trip.

Zurab Tskhovrebadze, a spokesman from the press service of the patriarchate, says political circles in Georgia are in favor of the visit because the pope is an important political figure representing a state (the Vatican) that has great influence on political events. He noted the visit is a recognition of Georgia's independence from the former Soviet Union.

A prominent Georgian politician, Kakha Chitaia, who served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the last parliament, has praised the trip.

"From a state point of view, one cannot but stress the importance of this visit. This is a purely political event, and to oppose it means to oppose the policies of our state. Opposition to this visit reflects the global politics of our opponents."

But patriarch spokesman Tskhovrebadze asserts that while Orthodox Christians are tolerant by nature, they are not indifferent to their own faith. He said the church's leaders will receive representatives of other faiths, such as the pope, but there must be no compromise in relations with leaders of different religions.

Father Basil Kobakhidze, a former press secretary of the patriarchate who favors improving ties with the Catholic Church, says the visit is very important for Georgia. He says it will help improve relations between the faiths.

(Sozar Subeliani, an RFE/RL correspondent in Tbilisi, contributed to this report).

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