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Pope Calls for Peaceful ‘Coexistence’ in Caucasus

Pope Francis (R) holds his pastoral staff as he celebrates a Mass in a partially empty Tbilisi stadium, in Tbilisi, Georgia, Oct. 1, 2016. The pontiff will next visit Azerbaijan during his three-day visit to the Caucasus.

Pope Francis held an open-air mass in Georgia Saturday as he continued a peace mission to the Caucasus region that is torn between Russia and the West.

Speaking in Tbilisi to worshipers from Georgia's small Catholic community, Francis offered "consolation” people need to cope with “the turmoil” that they experience in their lives.

It was one of the smallest crowds ever seen at an outdoor papal mass on Francis' foreign trips this year.

Organizers had hoped for much bigger participation than the about 3,000 people who attended the mass at a stadium with a capacity of 25,000 in Georgia’s capital.

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

The pope met Patriarch Ilia after his arrival on Friday and was due to have another meeting with him on Saturday night.

On Friday, Francis called for peaceful "coexistence" in the conflict-ridden ex-Soviet region at the start of the three-day tour, during which he will visit Azerbaijan just months after he visited its arch-foe Armenia.

Francis also spoke of the need for refugees to return to their homes and called for respect of national sovereignty, without using the word "occupation,” apparently referring to Russian intervention in two Georgian regions.

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

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.