VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis' trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan will be filled with religiously symbolic encounters with Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims and Jews. Current events in Syria and other geopolitical concerns might overshadow the message.
Francis arrives Friday in the Georgian capital, Tblisi, and plunges right into the protocol of a papal visit: an airport welcome ceremony, a courtesy visit to President Giorgi Margvelashvili, a welcome speech and an eagerly anticipated meeting with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia.
Later in the day, though, he will issue a strong appeal for peace in Syria and Iraq, where Christians are being attacked and driven from their homes by Islamic extremists and where Francis has strongly condemned the recent assault by Russian and Syrian forces on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.
A special prayer for peace is planned Friday evening in the Chaldean Catholic church in Tbilisi with members of the Assyrian Chaldean church leadership. It comes just days after Francis warned those responsible for the Aleppo siege "will be held accountable before God."
On the eve of his visit, he met with aid groups working in Syria and urged all governments involved to "renounce their own interests in order to achieve the greater good: peace."
It's unclear how far Francis will take his condemnation given his reluctance to offend Russia or the Russian Orthodox Church, after his historic meeting with the Russian patriarch in Cuba earlier this year.
That reluctance might also temper any criticism of what Georgia hopes to draw attention to during his trip: what it calls the "occupation" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Russia.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. Russia effectively gained complete control over both regions after a brief war against Georgia in 2008.
The Vatican says the pope's main message will be one of peace and reconciliation and that the pope is unlikely to get drawn into specifics about the conflict.
A more subtle message of the trip is one of steadily improving ties between the Holy See and the two former Soviet republics.
When St. John Paul II visited Georgia in 1999 to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Catholic-Orthodox tensions were so high that the Georgian Orthodox Church urged its faithful to stay away from his Mass. Relations are still strained, unlike the Vatican's more friendly relations with other Orthodox churches.
But the Vatican says an official delegation from the Orthodox patriarchate will attend Francis' Saturday morning Mass, a not-insignificant ecumenical development.
"For Georgia's Catholics and personally for me, the papal visit is a great event," said Tako Peikrishvili, a 27-year-old from the village of Aral in southern Georgia's mountains.
Francis on Sunday travels to Azerbaijan for the second leg of the trip, spending only 10 hours on the ground, however.
Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, contributed to this report.
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