Pope Francis has begun a visit to Georgia by calling for coexistence between all peoples and states in the region. His words were clearly aimed at Moscow, which has backed the breakaway of two Georgian regions.
Pope Francis avoided mentioning Russia directly in a speech at presidential palace in Tbilisi on Friday, but did say that "coexistence" was "an indispensable precondition" to achieve peace and stability.
The pontiff also called for "the respect of sovereign prerogatives of all countries within the framework of international law."
His comments alluded to the two neighbors' strained relations following the Georgian-Russian war in 2008 and the Kremlin's backing for two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which remain under Russian occupation.
While not mentioning the two regions by name, Francis said he supported the right of displaced people to "freely return to that land."
Analysts said Francis' measured speech showed the Vatican's interest in not taking sides, or damaging increasingly warm ties with the Kremlin-backed Russian Orthodox Church.
Before the speech, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said peace could not be accomplished in light of "violations of the rights of civilians and the territory being occupied by a neighboring country."
Although 100 well-wishers greeted Francis at Tbilisi's main airport, he was subjected to a roadside protest by a few dozen civilians and Orthodox priests, some of whom described the Vatican as a "spiritual aggressor."
Pope Francis' three day tour of the Caucasus, a region that straddles Europe, Russia and the Middle East, will also take him to the mostly Muslim state of Azerbaijan.
The pope is due in Baku on Sunday, where he will meet with President Ilham Aliyev. On Monday, Azerbaijani authoritarian leader won a referendum on constitutional changes seen as a move to consolidate his grip on power.
Francis is expected to call for a peaceful resolution to the country's conflict with Armenia over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh.
mm/sms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)