Ecumenism and Peace to Be Focus of Pope Francis’ Visit to Armenia

Vatican spokesman warns against media "obsession" over whether the Holy Father will refer to the term “genocide” in relation to 20th century massacre of Armenians.

Khor Virap with Mount Ararat in background. Pope Francis will be visiting the monastery on the last day of his three-day visit to Armenia which begins this Friday.
Khor Virap with Mount Ararat in background. Pope Francis will be visiting the monastery on the last day of his three-day visit to Armenia which begins this Friday. (photo: Wikipedia)

Pope Francis visits the world’s first Christian nation on Friday when he lands in the Armenian capital Yerevan for a three day apostolic voyage aimed at showing his closeness to the Armenian people and sharing their wish for peace after a history of conflict and suffering.

At a press briefing Tuesday, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi also said ecumenism will be a key focus of the papal trip which returns a visit to the Vatican last year by Catholicos, Karekin II, Patriarch of All Armenia.

According to Vatican sources, the Pope is expected to emphasize the importance of baptism and that Christian unity is already realized through the act of “walking together”. He is also expected to stress what he has referred to as the “ecumenism of blood” — joint witness in the face of persecution.

Karekin II is the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, part of Oriental Orthodoxy. The church, which is Armenia’s central religious authority, broke with Rome and Constantinople in 554 over the Council of Chalcedon, although it remains very close to Rome.

That closeness can be seen in the extent to which the Armenian Patriarch is hosting the Pope. The two leaders will participate in several events and liturgies together (see below) and the Holy Father will be residing at the Patriarch’s residence for the visit, just as Pope St. John Paul II did when he visited Armenia in 2001, although this is partly due to there being no apostolic nunciature in the country.  

Father Lombardi explained that the Pope’s June 24-26 trip will take place "within the framework of a two stage trip to the Caucasus" as the Holy Father will visit two other states in the region at the beginning of October: Georgia and Azerbaijan. The separation of the trip reflects ongoing disputes in the region, particularly tensions related to the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh that was the center of a bloody conflict between a Christian Armenia and a Muslim-majority Azerbaijan after the end of the Cold War (see this pre-visit article by the Register's Victor Gaetan here).

Like all papal trips, this week’s visit is also meant to encourage and support the local Catholic Church in the country. Armenia has 280,000 Catholics, equivalent to 9.6 per cent of its nearly 3 million population. The Eastern Rite church comprises 20 parishes, three bishops, 27 priests, two men religious and 20 women religious, and 69 seminarians.

An Armenian Catholic Patriarchate didn’t exist until the 18th century, but the Armenian Church claims apostolic succession through the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus. As a Christian state, it dates back to 301 AD, making it the earliest Christian country, preceding the Edict of Milan. After persecution by Armenian Kings Axidares, Khosrov I, the country became Christian under King Tiridates III after he was converted by Gregory the Illuminator — a fact of great pride to the Armenians.

Armenians have had a very painful history, and Christians have suffered severe persecution in the country. Of particular importance during this visit will be remembrance of the 1.5 million Armenians who were killed from 1909 to 1922, largely by Ottoman Turks. Father Lombardi couldn’t say whether Pope Francis would refer to the massacre as genocide — something the Turkish government refuses to recognize. It believes the figure to be exaggerated, and claims they were, in any case, victims of civil war and unrest.

“Why is there all this obsession in asking questions about this?", Father Lombardi told reporters. "We know what happened. No one denies that there have been horrific massacres and we recognize this.” He said the issue must not become a political “trap” that leads to the substance of the “huge tragedy” being overlooked. Francis has referred to the massacre as a genocide before, in April 2015, when he led a commemorative Mass in St. Peter’s basilica with Karekin II, but it led to Turkey temporarily withdrawing its ambassador to the Holy See. But last week he said he preferred not to use the word genocide in the context of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, preferring to describe it as “martyrdom.”

Father Lombardi said the Armenian word "Medz Yeghern" [the Great Evil] is even "stronger" than the term genocide. Monsignor Antranig Ayvazian, a professor at the University of Yerevan who also lost members of his close family in the massacres, said the Armenian word means “the bloody uprooting and destruction of all people” and added that the Holy See, in any case, has to be "neutral" on such political issues. He said the massacres actually began in the 19th century, during which 30,000 Armenians also died.

Msgr. Ayvazian said Armenians are very much looking forward to the visit. They are a “sentimental people” who “do not forget the good they have received,” he said. The presence of Pope Francis, he added, “is a blessing to us” and the Armenian people have a filial bond with the Pope, even though 90 percent of the population is not Catholic. “For everyone, the name of Francis is a key to joy, serenity and hope for a future in Armenia that is better than it is today," he said.

Armenians hold Pope Benedict XV in particularly high esteem, knowing that during the genocide, he and the Vatican tried to stop the deportations of the Armenians into the Syrian desert, save the victims and prevent the massacre of an entire people. 

The Pope’s Program in Armenia


Friday, 24 June 2016

Being such a short visit, Pope Francis faces an intense schedule after he leaves Rome on Friday morning. He arrives Yerevan’s “Zvartnots” international airport at 3pm local time but will deliver no discourse immediately at the welcome ceremony — instead he’ll be driven at 3.35pm to the famous Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Apostolic church, where he will meet Catholicos Karekin II and deliver his first speech of the trip.

18:00        The Pope will make a courtesy visit to the President of the Republic at the Presidential Palace      

18:30        Francis will meet with the Civil Authorities and Diplomatic Corps at the Presidential Palace where he is expected to make “an important” speech, according to Father Lombardi. Around 240 diplomats and civic leaders will be present.

19:30        Private meeting with the Catholicos at the Apostolic Palace in Etchmiadzin, no speech is expected.           


Saturday, 25 June 2016

08:45        Visit to the Tzitzernakaberd Memorial Complex, built to remember those who were killed during the Medz Yeghern. Father Lombardi said the monument is highly symbolic and a place of great emotion visited by most of the Armenian population and important visitors to Armenia. The Pope and Karekin will be welcomed by the President and be greeted by a group of Armenian children who will sing for the Pope. The Pope is expected to say a prayer and the Our Father. The guests will then pass to a memorial garden and meet around ten descendants of people whom Benedict XV help rescue from the genocide.

10:00        Transfer by plane to Gyumri in northern Armenia where most of the Catholics are located.   

11:00        Holy Mass in Vartanants Square, a large space built in memory of the martyrs of Armenia. The open air Mass, the only public celebration of the Eucharist during the visit, will be a novelty as the Church in Armenia always celebrates Mass in churches. The Pope will make a short tour in the popemobile to meet the Catholic community of the city — the only such tour in the popemobile.

16:45        Visit to the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of the Seven Wounds in Gyumri        

17:15        Visit to the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs in Gyumri.

18:00        Transfer by plane to Yerevan

19:00        Ecumenical Meeting and Prayer for Peace in Republic Square in Yerevan. The Vatican says this is expected to be the most attended event, with 10,000 people likely to participate. The Pope will deliver a discourse also in the presence of the President and the Catholicos.  


Sunday, 26 June 2016

09:15        After a private Mass, the Pope will meet with Armenia’s 14 Catholic Bishops and 12 priests at the Apostolic Palace in Etchmiadzin.

10:00        The Pope will take part in the divine liturgy in the Armenian-Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin. The Pope will deliver a discourse outside. This will be followed by an “ecumenical lunch” at the apostolic palace hosted by the Catholicos, with the archbishops and the bishops of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Catholic Bishops and the cardinals and bishops of the papal entourage.

15:50        After a short rest, the Pope will meet with delegates and benefactors of the Armenian Apostolic Church at the Apostolic Palace.        

17:00        The Holy Father will then be transported to the Monastery of Khor Virap, “a very famous and wonderful place” Father Lombardi said, which also features  on the logo of the trip. The monastery, close to Mount Ararat in Turkey, has been situated there since 642 and in its current form since 1662. A destination for pilgrims, it is noted for being the place where Gregory the Illuminator was initially imprisoned for 14 years by King Tiridates III. The Pope is expected to give a blessing there and release two doves, symbolic of the desire for peace.       

18:15        Farewell ceremony at the Airport in Yerevan        

18:30        Departure by plane for Rome    

20:40        Arrival at Ciampino Airport in Rome   

The Pope will be accompanied on the trip by most of his usual party including Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches. However, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will not be present as he will be attending the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete.

Father Lombardi also revealed that among the journalists travelling to Armenia for the papal visit is Evangelina Himitian, the daughter of an Armenian evangelical pastor in Argentina and a friend of the then Cardinal Bergoglio during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Himitian’s grandparents lived through the genocide, saved by the help of some Turkish peasants who offered them protection.

Follow my coverage of the Pope's 14th visit outside Italy on Catholic News Agency and the Register, as well as on Twitter at @EdwardPentin.