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Georgia: Pope Seeks To Bridge Catholic-Orthodox Divide

Pope John Paul continues a two-day visit to Georgia today -- his latest step in an ongoing effort to bridge the divide between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Gallant files this report from Tbilisi.

Tbilisi, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- "God bless Georgian soil. God give Georgia unity and peace and glorious sons." Pope John Paul offered a blessing in Georgian, on Georgian soil, to the Georgian nation yesterday on the first day of a two-day visit.

The Pope is clearly hoping that his brief visit to Georgia will help build bridges with the Orthodox Church and help bring peace to the troubled Caucasus.

After meeting yesterday with Patriarch Ilia, the Pope said the third millennium should be a chance for the Catholic and Orthodox churches to begin to move together and overcome the rifts that divide them. He noted that Georgia has always been open to contact with other religions, and that his trip is a sign of how "deeply the Catholic Church desires to foster communion with the Georgian church."

The trip to Georgia is the Pope's second to a predominantly Orthodox country. He made his first to Romania in the spring and participated with Patriarch Theoctist in ecumenical ceremonies and both Eastern Rite and Latin masses. When the trip was over, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said it had opened the way for better relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.

And clearly, the Pope's stop in Georgia is another step toward the trip he hopes to make to Russia. However, Russia's Patriarch Aleksii said just last week that many issues still divide the churches and that it is still too early to talk about a papal visit.

Despite the Pope's bid to improve ties with the Georgian Orthodox Church, many Orthodox priests and bishops oppose the visit because they fear that it may convince Orthodox followers to convert to Catholicism, which has about 50,000 followers in Georgia. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze dismissed reports that he had pressured the Patriarch to invite the Pope, saying "there was no pressure whatsoever" from him. He said the papal journey was a desire shared by he and the Patriarch.

There also has been some discussion in the media regarding the venue for today's mass, which is being celebrated by the pope. It is being held in the indoor Sport Palace. Normally, the Pope celebrates outdoor masses before tens of thousands of people. The Sport Palace holds only 14,000. Shevardnadze said he was not very sure in his ability "to ensure good weather" for an outdoor mass. He noted the Vatican and the Georgian authorities agreed on the venue. But reports in Tbilisi suggest the Vatican agreed to the site because some Orthodox leaders voiced opposition to an outdoor mass in a main city square.

Nonetheless, Shevardnadze, in welcoming the pope at the airport yesterday, called the visit an "historic and honorable event."

"It is very important also that the pope's visit to Georgia coincides with yet another historic date and that is the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That event will also play a very important part in our visit." Shevardnadze said the papal visit was an important one for all the people in the Caucasus and will help establish a lasting peace in the region. Patriarch Ilia echoed the President's words. The Pope said the current task is to stabilize peace throughout the Caucasus and to promote harmony and cooperation.

At a prayer service last night in an 11th century cathedral in the ancient Georgian capital of Mtskheta, the Patriarch and the Pope called on world leaders and international organizations to work together to ensure peace.

After today's mass, the pope is set to meet with Shevardnadze and a group of Georgian intellectuals before returning to Rome tonight.