Pope Francis has wrapped up a visit to Georgia with fresh gestures of friendship towards the Orthodox Church despite being snubbed by the local patriarchate.
Francis celebrated mass on Saturday in Tbilisi’s Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, where fewer than 3,000 of the facility’s 27,000 seats were filled.
“A mass by Pope Francis to a half-empty stadium shows just how much of a minority Catholics are in Georgia,” said Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from Tbilisi.
“More than 80 percent of the population is Georgian Orthodox Christian.”
The Vatican had expected the Georgian Orthodox Church to send a delegation to the mass in Tbilisi, even though the patriarchate announced earlier this week that its clergy could not take part “due to dogmatic differences” dating back to the Middle Ages.
In the end, Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesman, confirmed that no Orthodox bishops showed up.
Closing mass, Francis strayed from a scripted speech, thanking ordinary Orthodox “faithful”, rather than official church representatives, for attending the service.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili was also present.
“Dear brothers and sisters, let us take up this call: To not bury ourselves in what is going wrong around us or be saddened by the lack of harmony between us,” Francis said.
Nationalist groups, supported by Orthodox priests, have staged several protests against Francis’s visit, depicting him as an “Antichrist” and a “spiritual aggressor”.
Some protesters at the event also accused Francis of seeking to convert Georgians to Catholicism.
“When the head of the Catholic Church says that we should seek forgiveness from gay people, this means that he goes against Christ,” Father David, from Parents of Orthodoxy, told Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera’s Forestier-Walker said: “For some, there can be no harmony unless you’re Georgian, Orthodox and heterosexual.
“Homophobic, Islamophobic or xenophobic sentiments are not the exclusive preserve of radical or fringe groups in Georgia. They regularly find expression in the political and religious mainstream.”
The conservative Georgian Orthodox church is tied to the Moscow patriarchate, and both have strained but improving relations with the Vatican, as part of slow-moving efforts to heal the 1,000-year-old Orthodox-Catholic rift.
Francis, seen as progressive on some issues, also used his Georgian visit to defend the indissolubility of marriage.
He said adultery is inspired by “the Devil” and urged anyone tempted to betray their spouse to “seek immediate help”.
“We must do everything to save a marriage,” said Francis, defining divorce as an affront to God that makes children suffer, and insisting that “three magic words” – excuse me, thank you and sorry – can relieve marital strife.
Francis also complained about a “world war to destroy marriage” waged with “gender theory”, which the Vatican criticises for offering a more flexible interpretation of a person’s gender identity.
Francis’ trip is part of a three-day pilgrimage to the Caucasus area, which straddles Europe, Russia and the Middle East, focused on peace and religious tolerance.
Francis already toured the region in June when he visited Armenia.
The journey ends on Sunday in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich majority Muslim nation with an a Catholic minority that is even smaller than Georgia’s, and a territorial dispute with Armenia over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh.