The Pope just left Georgia, where Mrs SG and I have been for the past 5 weeks. It’s a friendly, interesting place that has, after a bit of a false start, been the most successful of the former Soviet Republics in making the transition to liberal democratic capitalism. It has an Association Agreement with the EU and is very open to Western ideas, trade and investment. Corruption was almost eliminated under President Mikheil Saakashvili, but is creeping back now, we hear.
But back to the Pope. As he does everywhere, he performed a mass at a venue that would accommodate the expected crowds – in this case a sports stadium. But only a few thousand turned up. It has been reported that the leadership of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which rejects ecumenism and has 83% of the population as followers, advised those followers not to attend.
Apparently ill-feeling engendered by the Great Schism that split Western and Eastern Christianity nearly 1,000 years ago is still strong in Georgia. The Pope was even greeted by demonstrators carrying insulting placards, written in English. According to eurasianet.org they were members of the Union of Orthodox Parents. The same source cites examples of discrimination against Roman Catholicism and other minority religions.
I feel stroppy about this because Georgia seldom gets mentioned in global news reports, and when it does it’s a pity if the news makes the country appear mean-spirited or downright stupid. I am here to tell you that a handful of religiously-inspired hate-mongers are not representative of the Georgians I have met.
The centre of Yerevan (Armenia’s capital city) has never been so quiet. Streets are closed off around the temporary stage on the south side of Republic Square, where Pope Francis will this afternoon address dignitaries and whoever can find standing room within earshot of the loudspeakers.
Armenia was the first country in the world to become officially Christian, beating the Roman Empire by 79 years. As in Russia, religion has become an important signifier of nationality, and virtually every Armenian is a follower of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The Armenian Church belongs to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which diverged from Roman Catholicism after the Great Schism of 1054 – the eleventh century equivalent of Brexit. So a visit by the Pope is a big deal. It represents a handshake between two branches of the Christian faith – a demonstration of unity of purpose in a fragmented world.
But more than that, in April Pope Francis described the killing of over a million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as ‘genocide’, for which he was reprimanded by the Turkish Government which immediately recalled its envoy to the Vatican. His first act on landing in Yerevan yesterday was to visit the Genocide Memorial.
Armenia wants international recognition of its proud history, its victimhood and its legitimacy as a nation. Armenia also wants acceptance of the claims of the Armenian enclave Ngorno Karabakh to independence from Azerbaijan. Frankly, Armenians cannot understand how anyone could disagree with this interpretation of history and international law.
It is easy to understand why Armenians attach such importance to this visit by someone of Pope Francis’s political and moral standing, and his implicit endorsement of their world view.