Pope Francis hailed Armenia’s steadfast Christian heritage on Friday as he arrived in the former Soviet republic for a three-day visit to commemorate the centenary of the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians that the pope himself has called a “genocide.”
In a largely Orthodox land where Catholics are a minority, Armenians seemed genuinely honored to welcome a pope who has long championed the Armenian cause from his time as an archbishop in Argentina and now as leader of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church.
Small groups of residents lined his motorcade route, and a gaggle of schoolchildren wearing white T-shirts and yellow neckerchiefs - the colors of the Vatican flag - greeted him at the airport with a big banner written in Italian: “Armenia Welcomes Pope Francis.”
“I shook the pope’s hand but didn’t have the time to kiss it,” 42-year-old Yerevan resident Nazik Sargsyan said. “I’m sure God’s blessing has come down on me with that handshake.”
In his initial remarks in the ornate Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin, Francis didn't use the politically charged term “genocide” but instead spoke of the “holy sign of martyrdom” of Armenians who died at the hands of Ottoman Turks starting in 1915.
With the Apostolic patriarch Karekin II by his side, Francis praised Armenia for becoming the first nation to declare Christianity the state religion in 301 and for keeping alive the “light of faith” even in its darkest times. He urged all Christians to unite to prevent religion from being exploited and manipulated today, an apparent reference to the current-day Islamic extremist attacks on Christians in the Middle East.
“For Armenia, faith in Christ has not been like a garment to be donned or doffed as circumstances or convenience dictate, but an essential part of its identity, a gift of immense significance, to be accepted with joy, preserved with great effort and strength, even at the cost of life itself,” he said.
The Vatican has long cheered the Armenian cause, holding up the poor nation of 3 million mostly Orthodox Christians as a bastion of faith and martyrdom in a largely Muslim region.
President Serzh Sargsyan, Karekin and a handful of other officials greeted Francis on the tarmac of the Yerevan airport in a low-scale welcome ceremony.
As a girls’ choir serenaded, pope, patriarch and president then walked behind a goose-stepping military official along a red carpet into the airport’s VIP lounge before heading to Echmiadzin, the seat of the Oriental Orthodox church where Francis will stay as a guest of Karekin.
Later Friday, Francis will deliver his first major speech to Armenia’s president, political leaders and diplomatic corps.
Francis endeared himself to Armenians around the world last year when he celebrated a Mass marking the 100th anniversary of the slaughter and called it the “first genocide of the 20th century.” Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador in protest and accused Francis of spreading lies.
“Blessed is the hour when the feet of Pope Francis touched our soil!” exclaimed local resident Simon Samsonya as Francis arrived. “He won the love of the Armenian people with his message at the St. Peter’s Cathedral on the eve of the 100 years anniversary of the genocide.”
Recently, the Vatican seems to have pulled back from using that terminology: Francis and his spokesman took pains not to refer to “genocide” in the run-up to the trip and the pope said recently that he actually prefers the term “martyrdom.”
It remained to be seen how Francis would handle his visit Saturday at Armenia’s genocide memorial.
Many historians consider the massacres of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians a genocide, a classification that carries legal and financial implications given Armenian claims for restitution. Turkey rejects the term, says the death figure is inflated and that people died on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed amid World War I.
The Armenian ambassador to the Holy See, Mikayel Minasyan, said it almost doesn’t matter if Francis utters the word, given his April 2015 pronouncement.
“He has already said it,” Minasyan said in a phone interview from Yerevan. “The fact that he is going to the memorial is worth more than the word or whether it is pronounced or not.”SHOW MORE