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Pope Francis holds Mass in empty stadium

October 1, 2016

Pope Francis has celebrated Mass in a sparsely attended Tbilisi stadium in predominately Orthodox Georgia. The Pope was deserted by the leadership of the Georgian Orthodox Church, in a surprising snub to the Vatican.

Georgien Tbilisi - Papst Franziskus im Stadion in Mikheil Meshki
Image: Reuters/D. Mdzinarishvili

Barely 3,000 people braved brilliant sunshine Saturday on a beautiful autumn day to attend a Mass held in the former Soviet republic's 27,000-capacity sports arena in a snub that highlights ongoing divisions between the Catholic and Georgian Orthodox churches.

The snub was unexpected. Pope Francis had received a surprisingly warm welcome from the Orthodox leader upon his arrival Fridayfor the three-day visit that also includes a stop in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.

Patriarch Ilia welcomed Francis as my "dear brother" and toasted him saying: "May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome."

However, the Orthodox leader and other senior figures were nowhere to be seen on Saturday. Meanwhile, some hardline Orthodox protesters gathered in the city to criticize the Papal visit. Signs read: "The Vatican is a spiritual aggressor," and "Death of papism."

The Orthodox patriarchate, though, had criticized the protests, indicating something of an institutional shift that compared to the frosty reception by then-Pope John Paul II's 1999 visit, which the Orthodox Church explicitly encouraged Georgians to boycott.

The Georgian Orthodox church is ultraconservative and nationalistic and tied to the Moscow Patriarchate, which has strained, though improving, relations with the Holy See.

Georgien Tblisi- Menschen protestieren gegen den Besuch vom Papst in Georgien
Hardline Orthodox Christian protesters didn't exactly roll out a red carpet for Pope Francis in Tbilisi, Georgia. September 30, 2016.Image: Reuters/A. Bianchi

Georgia has a miniscule 2.5-percent Catholic minority in the overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian country. It was to those Catholics that Pope Francis seemed to tailor his address.

"Little and beloved flock of Georgia, who are so committed to works of charity and education, receive the encouragement of the Good Shepherd, trust in the One who takes you on his shoulders and consoles you," Francis said in a homily.

But some Orthodox Christians did turn up to hear the Pope's message. "I'm Orthodox, this is a Catholic Mass, but we are all Christians," Nata Koridze, a 40-year-old woman, told the DPA news agency.

Francis' Saturday itinerary includes a meeting with Georgia's Catholic clergy, a visit a hospital for the poor run by Catholic missionaries and a cathedral in Mtsketa, 22 kilometers (14 miles) northwest of the capital city and considered the spiritual center of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

His three-day visit will next move on to Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. That country is locked in a bitter and bloody conflict with Armenia over the breakaway province of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Francis visited in June.

jar/rc (AP, dpa)