Pope Francis Touring Tbilisi

Pope Francis is celebrating Mass for Georgia's tiny Catholic community and is pressing his mission to improve ties with the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Pope Francis, right, meets Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.

Georgia is overwhelmingly Orthodox, with less than 3 percent of its population - or about 112,000 people - Catholic, according to Vatican statistics.

The last-minute decision from the Orthodox not to send a delegation despite the warm welcome Patriarch Ilia II had given the pope on Friday, suggested that the usual "one step forward, two steps back" dynamic of the Vatican's ecumenical efforts is still ongoing with the Georgian church.

Before beginning the Mass Saturday morning, Francis greeted crowds at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium by taking a tour in a golf-cart style popemobile used for the occasion.

While Francis' visit has been met with some protests by hardline Orthodox Georgians, the official reception by the Orthodox Church indicated something of an institutional shift that has accompanied Georgia's geopolitical aspirations.

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 global law".

Francis had received a surprisingly warm welcome from the Orthodox leader upon his arrival Friday for the three-day visit that also includes a stop in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.

On Saturday, about 100 members of the hard-line group Union of Orthodox Parents demonstrated outside the stadium where Francis celebrated Mass. In their absence, Francis instead thanked "those Orthodox faithful" who were present, including members of an Orthodox choir.

The Orthodox patriarchate, though, had criticized the protests, with the September 28 statement saying that the papal Mass wasn't an act of "proselytism", which in it self is change in the Georgian church institutional attitude, in an effort to accompany the country's geopolitical aspiration of joining the European Union.

Patriarch Ilia welcomed Francis as my "dear brother" and toasted him saying: "May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome".

The Orthodox cathedral is located in Mtskheta, the spiritual capital of Georgia and where Christianity took root in the 4th century.

Francis referred to the precious relic Saturday.

"The holy tunic, a mystery of unity, exhorts us to feel deep pain over the historical divisions which have arisen among Christians: these are the true and real lacerations that wound the Lord's flesh", he said in the cathedral. Christian hope, he added, "gives us the incentive to believe that differences can be healed and obstacles removed".

"As Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, whom we commemorate today, wrote: "they love God in much larger numbers than men do".

"Parts of my country are under occupation and the Pope's message of peace is very important", Manana Itonishvili, a 56-year-old arts history professor who attended the mass, told AFP.

While in the energy-rich country, the Pope is expected to reiterate the call he made three months ago in Armenia for a peaceful resolution of the long-simmering conflict over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh.