Pope Francis will meet with Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders during his trip to the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan scheduled to start on September 30, adding a strong inter-religious dimension to an already politically delicate trip.
The Vatican on Monday released the itinerary for the Caucasus trip, which was originally planned as an extension of Francis’ recent visit to Armenia but was split up.
In Georgia, after meeting with the president, Francis will call on the spiritual leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, and meet with the Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic community.
In majority-Muslim Azerbaijan, Francis will celebrate Mass with the tiny Catholic community and meet with the region’s chief imam, Allahshukur Pashazade, as well as the Orthodox bishop of Baku and head of the country’s Jewish community.
There are currently about 15,000 Jews in Azerbaijan, most of them Mountain Jews, one of the three main Jewish communities that also include Ashkenazi Jews and Georgian Jews.
“We will be happy to welcome the Pope in Baku,” said Moisei Bekker, representative of the Baku religious community of Georgian Jews. “We Jews are satisfied with how we live here. We are protected. In Azerbaijan, anti-Semitism did not and does not exist,” he said.
In his meetings with the president and Azerbaijani officials, Francis is also expected to raise the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, but since a separatist war ended in 1994 it has been under the control of forces that claim to be local ethnic Armenians but that Azerbaijan claims include regular Armenian military. About 75 soldiers from both sides, along with several civilians, were killed in April in the worst violence since 1994.
Returning home from Armenia, Francis said he would urge Azerbaijan during his visit to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
“I’ll talk to the Azerbaijanis about truth, of what I’ve seen and what I feel, and I’ll also encourage them,” Francis said during his airborne press conference on June 26. “And I’ll say that not making peace over a tiny piece of land — because it’s not very big — just isn’t clear. And I say this to everyone, Armenian and Azerbaijani.”