Pope holds Georgia mass on Caucasus peace tour

Pope Francis (centre) waves as he arrives to celebrate a Holy Mass at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Tbilisi on Oct 1, 2016.
Pope Francis (centre) waves as he arrives to celebrate a Holy Mass at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Tbilisi on Oct 1, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

TBILISI (AFP) - Pope Francis on Saturday (Oct 1) held an open-air mass for thousands of faithful in Georgia as he continued a peace mission to the volatile Caucasus region torn between Russia and the West.

Francis offered "consolation that we need amid the turmoil we experience in life" to worshippers from Georgia's small Catholic community as he addressed them in the capital Tbilisi.

The pontiff on Friday called for peaceful "coexistence" in the conflict-ridden ex-Soviet region at the start of the three-day tour that will also take him to Azerbaijan just months after he visited its arch-foe Armenia.

Tiny Orthodox Georgia - one of the world's oldest Christian nations - fought a brief war with Moscow in 2008, and two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are under what it insists is de facto Russian occupation.

Many Georgians hope that the Pope's visit - billed by the Vatican as a peace mission - will highlight the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Georgians who became refugees during the conflicts that have roiled the nation.

"Parts of my country are under occupation and the Pope's message of peace is very important," Manana Itonishvili, a 56-year-old arts history professor who attended the mass, told AFP.

As he arrived in Georgia on Friday, Francis spoke of the need for refugees to return to their homes and called for respect of national sovereignty, but he seemed to dodge potential Russian ire by refusing to use the word "occupation".

Apparently wary of irritating the Kremlin and Russia's powerful Orthodox Church, he only made general calls for "the respect of sovereign prerogatives of all countries within the framework of international law." Francis was due Saturday afternoon to visit Georgia's ancient capital of Mtskheta along with the head of the country's Orthodox Church Ilia II.

While a centuries-old theological dispute means the pair will not celebrate a joint mass, they are expected to offer words of solidarity.

On Sunday, Francis is scheduled to travel to Azerbaijan, where he will meet with, among others, President Ilham Aliyev, just days after the authoritarian leader won a referendum on constitutional changes seen as consolidating his grip on power.

While in the energy-rich country, the Pope is expected to reiterate the call he made three months ago in Armenia for a peaceful resolution of the long-simmering conflict over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh.

Officially part of Azerbaijan, the territory has been under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists since 1994, when a war between the two countries ended in a ceasefire but no formal peace accord.

Since then, there have been sporadic outbursts of violence, including several days of major clashes in April that left 110 people dead.