All for One: Holy Father Seeks Unity, Dangerous Peripheries with Armenia Trip

NEWS ANALYSIS: With this week’s trip and a second one to neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia in September, the Pope will visit a Caucasus region that’s considered a dangerous regional flashpoint.

Catholicos Kerekin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican on May 8, 2014.
Catholicos Kerekin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican on May 8, 2014. (photo:

In a season dominated by headlines about violence, anger, and disunity, Pope Francis heads to Armenia for three days, June 24-26, to underscore Christian collaboration and common roots.

It’s not a papal cakewalk though.

Armenia is engaged in a long simmering war with Azerbaijan, a “frozen conflict” that flared again in April. These countries have complex relations with their powerful neighbors, Russia and Turkey, which have had deadly clashes this year too.

On Sunday, Pope Francis will approach the long closed Armenian-Turkish border, symbol of 100-plus years of distrust.

Armenia, with Azerbaijan and Georgia — two countries Francis will visit in September — comprise a region known as the Caucasus, considered a dangerous potential flashpoint by many analysts.

For the Pope, that’s all the more reason to pour out Christ’s love, starting with Armenia, the first country to officially adopt Christianity, in 301 AD, long before the Roman Empire did in 380 AD.


Strong Religious Identity

The Armenian people are spread around the world, mainly as a result of the twentieth century’s first genocide, in 1915-1923, when Ottoman leaders initiated a brutal attempt to wipe them out. Some 1.5 million Armenians were murdered and hundreds of thousands were forced out of Anatolia, part of eastern Turkey today.   

Religious identity is one of the major explanations for how Armenians have maintained strong cultural continuity, generation after generation, wherever they live.

Some 93% of Armenian people belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, an Oriental Orthodox Church.

Only about 5% worldwide belong to the Armenian Catholic Church — and 1% of Armenia’s national population according to a 2011 census — in communion with the Holy See since the 18th century, and based in Beirut, Lebanon.

The Armenian Apostolic Church is centered in Holy Etchmiadzin, its spiritual center since the fourth century, a dynamic locus of faith and formation: From there, priests are trained and sent around the world to minister to the diaspora.

St. Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia’s first bishop, founded Etchmiadzin in 305 AD.


Orthodox Itinerary

What’s striking about Pope Francis’ itinerary is the extent to which the Armenian Apostolic Church is hosting him.

Even the official logo for the visit highlights the two churches: the Vatican coat of arms on a field of yellow, and the coat of arms of the Apostolic Church on purple, its traditional color.

The Pope arrives Friday and a half hour later, will be praying at the Apostolic Cathedral with Catholicos Kerekin II. (Armenian heads of church are called “Catholicos,” a word derived from the same Greek root for “Catholic,” or universal.) The day will end with a private meeting between the two leaders.

Together, they are expected to officiate over an ecumenical prayer for peace Saturday evening in Yerevan’s Republic Square.

The next morning, Pope Francis is scheduled to participate in a Divine Liturgy at the Apostolic Cathedral, sign a joint statement with Kerekin II, and visit the sacred site, Khor Virap Monastery, where St. Gregory was imprisoned for 14 years by a king he would later convert.

The Holy Father’s itinerary has him flying to another city, Gyumri, to say Mass in a region where more Catholics live, but Catholic Catholicos Gregory Peter XX Ghabroyan, age 81, elected last July is not listed on the most recent Vatican Radio trip schedule.


Following a Saint

As is often the case, Pope Francis is following closely the footsteps of St. John Paul II, who came to Armenia in 2001 to celebrate 1,700 years of Christian history.

St. John Paul opened his trip in the Apostolic Cathedral, participated in a divine liturgy with Catholicos Kerekin II, and honored victims of the genocide by visiting Yerevan’s Tzitzernakaberd Memorial, as Francis will do Saturday morning.

The saint even referred to the first genocide of the twentieth century in a joint written document released with Catholicos Kerekin.

However, Pope Francis was the first pope to say the word “genocide” out loud, at a memorial Mass for Armenian victims last April at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The government of Turkey, which strenuously denies a genocide against Armenia ever occurred, recalled its Ambassador to the Vatican for consultations following the Pope’s Divine Mercy statement on Armenia.

And earlier this month, the German parliament overwhelmingly approved a resolution on the Armenian genocide despite Turkish government warnings that it would harm bilateral relations.

As a result, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recalled Turkey’s Ambassador and some German MPs received protection after receiving death threats.

Turkey’s extreme sensitivity to criticism seems illogical considering the three Ottoman leaders who initiated the massacres were sentenced to death for war crimes and mass murder by a Turkish military tribunal in 1919.


Healing Wounds

Thanking the Pope for his support is one reason massive throngs are expected to greet the Holy Father throughout his pilgrimage.

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, helped organize St. John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Armenia and has been involved in Pope Francis’ visit since Catholicos Kerekin invited the Pope during a meeting at the Vatican in 2014.

Archbishop Barsamian sees three primary messages being conveyed by Pope Francis’s presence: the beauty of Christian unity, the importance of protecting Christianity in the Middle East, and the right method for healing historic wounds.

“As in 2001 when Pope John Paul II came, signifying our close relationship, this visit brings the churches together,” the Archbishop told the Register. “We have had many years of theological dialogue between the Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Church. Dialogue is more powerful by demonstrating unity. We are the Church of Jesus Christ!”

He continued, “This visit will be important because the Holy Father is visiting one of the ancient Christ churches, surrounded by non-Christian forces. His visit is a sign of support not only for Christian faithful in Armenia but to Christian families in the Middle East, who are suffering so greatly.”

Reflecting on the significance of Pope Francis’ remarks April 12, 2015, during a Solemn Mass for the Centenary of the Armenian Martyrdom, the bishop reminded us that the Pope’s purpose in referring to the genocide was to “recognize the wounds so such things will not happen in other parts of the world today.”  

Indeed, the Holy Father memorably exclaimed, “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it,” at the beginning of the celebration, held on Divine Mercy Sunday last year.

Archbishop Barsamian said he expects big crowds during the visit because Armenians want to “express their gratitude for such a courageous statement” which caused “the entire world to respond.”


A Long-Standing Appreciation

Pope Francis will be plunging into a culture he has appreciated and honored since serving as Auxiliary Bishop in Buenos Aires, according to Archbishop Kissag Mouradian, Primate of the Apostolic Armenian Church of the Republic of Argentina and Chile.

Archbishop Mouradian became friendly with Bishop Jorge Bergoglio, who he remembers as being extremely sympathetic both to the history of Armenian persecution and to the community’s perseverance in faith.

The Argentinian Catholic leader held requiem masses for Armenian martyrs at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Argentina’s capital city and participated in Armenian celebrations. He invited the Apostolic Archbishop to consecrate with him altars to Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew, apostles who traveled in Armenia, at two Catholic churches.  

In 2010, now serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio placed a traditional Armenian carved cross, a “khackar,” in the cathedral in remembrance of the dead.

According to Syrian-born Archbishop Mouradian, who came to Argentina in 1975, the future pope even said he hoped to be buried under the cathedral’s khackar.

Pope Francis is firm on the importance of recognizing the Armenian genocide to benefit both the Armenian and the Turkish people, His attitude is “Truth is always better than trying to deny or lie,” explained the archbishop to an Armenian news agency.

Since the Pope has this conviction, he is prepared to face reactions such as the Turkish government’s protest last year.

Observed Pope Francis’ old friend, “He was ready to face Turkey. He always told the truth and was in favor of justice. He is very brave and very convinced of his convictions, they will not change for anything. He is firm with justice and truth.”


Tension in the Caucasus

What makes the geo-political atmosphere in the Caucasus particularly tense is the standoff between Russia and Turkey using proxy states, respectively predominantly Christian Armenia and predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan.

Last Nov. 24, the Turkish military shot down a Russian military jet. Since then, Russian sanctions against Turkey, and Turkey’s escalating accusations against Armenia, a Russian ally, have revived the specter of war in the region.

Armenia controls a mountainous territory containing130,000 people in Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies within Azerbaijani borders. War over this enclave waged from 1988 to 1994. A Russian base in Armenia has provided some stability but if Turkey throws military weight behind its ally, Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, the fragile peace that has lasted for over 20 years could fracture in a monumentally dangerous way.

It is into this caldron that Pope Francis steps. 

Between Sept. 30 and Oct. 2, the Pope will make an apostolic visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan, both countries visited by St. John Paul II.   

As in Armenia, the Holy See has good relations with the Orthodox Church in Georgia, led by Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II — one of four Orthodox leaders boycotting this week’s Holy and Great Council in Crete.

Less than 1% of the Georgian population is Catholic. Last year, Pope Francis met with Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili, elected in 2014.

Does the Holy See have any cards to play in Azerbaijan?

Yes. The two states entered a diplomatic agreement only five years ago, and have shared a flurry of events and exchanges since.

Azerbaijan is one of only a few a majority Shia Muslim countries in the world. The Catholic Church has cultivated strong relations with Shia Muslim countries around the world, especially in Iran

At the ordination of a new Armenian Catholic bishop being sent to Istafan, Iran from Beirut last year, a Church official told the Register, “Do people in the West realize we have Catholic Armenian communities in Iran? Do they care? Our faith has helped us survive and the Holy See, discreet but everywhere present, is a key advocate, not just for Catholics but the entire Christian world.” 

Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning

international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.