In Ex-Soviet Republics, Mixed Relations With the Church

Problems in Georgia, But Progress in Armenia and Azerbaijan

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 30, 2003 ( A Vatican official saw mixed success during his recent visit to three ex-Soviet republics.

In Armenia and Azerbaijan, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican secretary for relations with states, witnessed the growth and good relations of the Catholic community, both with the government as well as with the local Orthodox Church.

In Georgia, however, the Orthodox Church’s opposition has left Catholics without juridical recognition.

Archbishop Tauran, who will be elevated to cardinal in the Oct. 21 consistory, visited the Eastern republics from Sept. 18-25.

In Georgia, the first leg of his trip, he was supposed to sign, following protracted talks, a church-state agreement, to offer juridical recognition to the Catholic Church in the country.

At the last moment, Petre Mamradze, First Vice Minister of State and head of the state chancellery, told the Foreign Affairs Ministry that the agreement would not be signed because of the local Orthodox Church’s opposition. Three-quarters of Georgia’s 5 million inhabitants are Orthodox.

Earlier, the Orthodox patriarchate published a statement expressing its opposition to the juridical recognition of the Catholic Church in the country. Moreover, false information about the pact was leaked to the media.

The protocol meetings having been canceled, Archbishop Tauran presided at a Mass in the Latin-rite cathedral in the center of Tbilisi. In his homily he encouraged Catholics to promote unity and the spiritual and moral rebirth of the country.

On Sept. 20, he arrived by car in Armenia, a country where both the government as well as the majority Armenian Orthodox Church maintain good relations with Catholics.

The former Soviet Republic has 3.3 million inhabitants, 94% of whom belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, which separated from Rome 1,500 years ago.

The following day, Archbishop Tauran traveled to Etchmiadzin — see of the Catholicos, Karekin II Nersissian, Supreme Patriarch of All the Armenians — the spiritual center visited by John Paul II in September 2001.

The afternoon of the same day, the archbishop met in Erevan with Robert Kocharian, president of the republic, and then presented a floral tribute at the memorial to the victims of the 1915 massacre at the hands of the Ottomans.

On Sept. 22, the papal representative visited Monsignor Nerses der Nersessian, archbishop for Eastern Europe of Catholic Armenians, with whom he spent time in prayer and then visited an orphanage of the local Caritas.

The next day, Archbishop Tauran traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, to meet with representatives of the country to find peaceful ways to resolve the question of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azeri territory inhabited primarily by Armenians.

To mark the visit, the mayor of the city offered the local Catholic community a plot of land to construct a church. An earlier building, built in the Gothic style in 1888, was destroyed in the 1930s by Stalin’s order.

In this country of 7.8 million inhabitants, 93% of whom are Muslim, on Sept. 24 in the morning, Archbishop Tauran addressed the juridical situation of Catholics with Rafik Aliev, president of the government’s Committee for Religious Communities.

He then visited Sheikh Allahshukur Pasha-zade, president of the Spiritual Council of the Caucasus Muslims. Also invited to his residence were Bishop Aleksander Iscenin of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, and Semyon Ikhiidov, president of the Jewish community.

At the invitation of Bishop Aleksander, Archbishop Tauran then visited the Russian church, rebuilt after the destruction of the Communist years.

The visit concluded with the celebration of the Eucharist, presided over by the archbishop in the Salesian Chapel, in the presence of some 120 people. After the Mass, those present went to pray at the site of the proposed Catholic church.

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