Pope Francis starts his Caucasus trip

Pope Francis starts his Caucasus tripPope Francis arrived Friday in Georgia for a weekend of religiously symbolic meetings with Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims and Jews, Associated Press reported.

But geopolitical concerns, including the bloodshed in Syria and the lingering effects of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia, might overshadow the trip.

Francis was greeted in the capital, Tbilisi by Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia and hundreds of well-wishers waving Vatican flags. He then headed into a private meeting with Margvelashvili at the presidential palace.

Later in the day, he will issue an 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.

It comes just days after Francis warned those responsible for the Aleppo siege "will be held accountable before God."

The Vatican says the pope's main message will be one of peace and reconciliation. The pope was expected to raise the plight of the more than 200,000 people displaced by the 2008 war, given his longtime concern for migrants, refugees and others forced to leave their homes.

A more subtle message of the trip is one of steadily improving ties between the Holy See and the two former Soviet republics.

The papal visit has triggered controversy, with some Georgian priests condemning the visit as an attempt to turn their flock into Catholics.

A small group of Orthodox activists protested on the road outside the airport on Friday. Some of them were holding placards in Georgian and English saying "Vatican is the spiritual aggressor" and "Pope arch-heretic, you are not welcome in Orthodox Georgia." Earlier this month, the ultra-conservative Union of Orthodox Parents picketed in front of the Vatican embassy in Tbilisi, urging on Ilia not to meet with Francis.

The Georgian Church defended its decision to host the pope.

"We would like to stress that we view as unacceptable the negative statements made in public by some men of the cloth of the Georgian Orthodox Church regarding this official visit, and we urge them and everyone to be calm," the Georgian Orthodox Church said in a statement. "The Pope is definitely conducting the Mass for Catholics, and we cannot consider this an act of proselytism as some think."
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