- Title: In ex-Soviet Georgia, pope issues veiled criticism of Russia
- Date: 30th September 2016
- Summary: TBILISI, GEORGIA (SEPTEMBER 30, 2016) (REUTERS) (SOUNDBITE) (Georgian) GEORGIAN PRESIDENT, GEORGY MARGVELASHVILI, SAYING: "We are 40 km (25 miles) away from barbed wire fences preventing civilian populations - neighbours, relatives, family members - from having contact with each other."
- Embargoed: 15th October 2016 15:07
- Keywords: Pope Francis Georgia president Georgy Margvelashvili Russia
- Location: TBILISI, GEORGIA
- City: TBILISI, GEORGIA
- Country: Georgia
- Topics: Society/Social Issues
- Reuters ID: LVA00251RCFGN
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text:Pope Francis called for respect for international law and the sovereign rights of nations as he arrived in Georgia on Friday (September 30), an implicit criticism of Russia, which keeps troops in two breakaway regions of the ex-Soviet state.
But Francis measured his words carefully, in an apparent attempt not to hurt the Vatican's increasingly warm ties with the Kremlin-backed Russian Orthodox Church.
Georgia won independence in 1991 but the Kremlin's shadow still looms large. Russia, which fought a short war with Georgia in 2008, is one of the few countries that recognise the contested areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Speaking at the welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace, Francis, in a clear reference to the Georgian situation, said relations between states in the region "can never lay aside respect for the sovereign rights of every country within the framework of international law."
In his address minutes before the pope spoke, Georgian President Georgy Margvelashvili said there was a political desire for all people to live in dignity.
"But this mission cannot be accomplished in the light of violations of the rights of civilians and the territory being occupied by a neighbouring country," the president told the pope.
While not specifically mentioning Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Francis supported the right of displaced people to "freely return to that land."
The government says about 300,000 people have been forced from their homes by the conflict over the disputed territories. Moscow has opposed U.N. resolutions backing their right of return.
Georgia, which wants to join the European Union and NATO, has accused Russia of practising "creeping occupation" by slowly moving fences delineating the breakaway areas from the rest of Georgia's territory.
"We are 40 km (25 miles) away from barbed wire fences preventing civilian populations - neighbours, relatives, family members - from having contact with each other," the president said.
Before the trip started, Georgia's ambassador to the Vatican, Tamara Grdzelidze, told Reuters in an interview that while she did not expect the pope to use the word "occupation", she had hoped that he would defend the country's "territorial integrity".
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