Pope Francis will visit Azerbaijan and Georgia in the autumn, the Vatican said on 9 April, one day after combatants in Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to cease fighting that has killed dozens in the past week.
Azerbaijan’s military and Armenian-backed separatists were locked in shelling and artillery strikes for four days over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, stoking fears of all-out war.
The Vatican did not mention the conflict as it announced the trip scheduled from 30 September to 2 October.
There are very few Roman Catholics in either country. Azerbaijan is about 95% Muslim while over 80% of Georgians are Eastern Orthodox Christians. Azerbaijan is often described by analysts as the most secularist Muslim country.
The Vatican announced last month Francis’s June 24-26 visit to Armenia, where again very few Catholics live and over 90% of the population are Oriental Orthodox Christians.
The EU has been rather invisible in the diplomatic efforts to avoid an escalation. As a result, Russia has raised its profile as mediator, although it has a strong bias for its ally Armenia.
Russia staked out its claim yesterday (7 April) to be the lead player in brokering a settlement to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a role it hopes will enhance its clout in a region where it competes for influence with Washington.
Georgia fears that in case of bigger military conflict, Russia would need to send troops and armament across its territory to landlocked Armenia.
That Pope’s trip could upset Turkey if Francis again describes the massacre of Christian Armenians in World War One as “genocide”.