Francis affirms the courage of the first Christian nation

June 24 saw only the second visit by a Pope to the tiny, landlocked former Soviet republic of Armenia, in a historic three-day trip.

Jun 24, 2016

VATICAN: June 24 saw only the second visit by a Pope to the tiny, landlocked former Soviet republic of Armenia, in a historic three-day trip. Armenia adopted Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD, and the visit is being officially billed as the “Visit to the first Christian nation.” Many hope the tour would bring messages of ecumenism, peace and remembrance, highlighting the refusal of Turkey to join other countries, most recently Germany, in recognising the Armenian Genocide. The Ottoman Turks massacred 1.5 million Armenian Christians between 1915 and 1917.

The visit included a welcome ceremony at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, audiences with President Serzh Sargsyan, ecumenical liturgies and a visit to the second city of Gyumri.

It also includes a trip to the Khor Virap Monastery where St Gregory the Illuminator, who is credited with converting Armenia from paganism, was imprisoned.

But one of the most significant items on the papal itinerary was the June 25 visit to Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex in the capital Yerevan. Last year, at a Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, Francis made history when he referred to the massacres by Ottoman Turks as genocide. The Turkish Government, which continues to deny that the slaughter constituted genocide, recalled its Vatican ambassador in protest.

Garen Nazarian, Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, believes that Pope Francis’ visit during this Jubilee Year of Mercy is a “solid message” in itself, but will also be a “demonstration of courage to face the past, and not to hide the truth behind walls of silence.”

When asked about the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, Nazarian said that all Armenians hope that “the visit will bring a message of peace and stability” across the region. There is, currently, a fragile ceasefire between the two countries, following a flare-up of open combat in April this year, where dozens of soldiers from both sides died.

Last year, during the April 12 liturgy for Armenians in Rome, St Gregory of Narek, a tenth-century Armenian saint and poet, was proclaimed the 36th Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Francis. Bishop Hovakim Manukyan, Bishop of the Armenian Church in London, said that this demonstrates the close links between the “sister” Churches.

Karekin II (pic), Catholics of All Armenians, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, has met Francis many times. He was present at his inauguration, and in 2014, while on an official visit to the Vatican, he personally invited the Pope to Armenia. -- The Tablet

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