October 1, 2016 / 10:01 AM / a year ago

Orthodox shun pope's Mass in Tbilisi, few Catholics turn out

TBILISI (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Saturday said Mass for unusually small crowd of just a few thousand Catholics in Georgia, a celebration that was further dampened when a delegation from the Orthodox Church stayed away.

Ex-Soviet Georgia is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian and less than 1 percent of the population is Catholic, according to government figures.

Still, organisers were hoping for a much bigger turnout than the some 3,000 people who came to the Mass at a stadium in the capital that has a capacity of 25,000.

It was one of the smallest crowds ever seen at an outdoor papal Mass on Francis' 16 foreign trips so far.

In another setback, a delegation representing the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, that the Vatican had expected to come to the worship service, did not show up.

Two days before the pope arrived, Ilia issued a statement saying Orthodox could not attend Catholic Masses because of doctrinal differences dating back to the 1054 schism that divided Christianity into eastern and western branches.

The Vatican, however, had been hoping the Orthodox would still attend. In fact, the pope's prepared words for the end of the Mass had him thanking the representatives.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives for a holy mass at Mikheil Meskhi stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 1, 2016.David Mdzinarishvili

After the Orthodox stayed away, Francis changed his text when he read it to thank "Orthodox faithful" who were there. Georgian President Georgy Margvelashvili, who is Orthodox, attended the Mass.

"We accept their decision (not to come)," said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.

Under Francis, who was elected in 2013, the Vatican has made a concerted effort to improve relations with Orthodox Christians, who number around 250 million worldwide, in the hopes of an eventual reunion.

A general view of the Mikheil Meskhi stadium as Pope Francis leads the Holy Mass in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 1, 2016.David Mdzinarishvili

Earlier this year, he held a historic meeting with Kirill, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Georgian Orthodox Church is one of the more conservative in the Orthodox world.

Some of members have followed the pope since he arrived on Friday to protest against the visit.

A small group held up signs outside the stadium reading: "Vatican is a spiritual aggressor" and "Pope, arch-heretic, you are not welcome in Orthodox Georgia."

The pope met Patriarch Ilia after his arrival on Friday and was due to have another meeting with him on Saturday night. Francis leaves on Sunday for overwhelmingly Muslim Azerbaijan. He returns to Rome on Sunday night.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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