Pope Francis will travel tomorrow to Armenia, the first Christian nation in the world. The trip is part of a three-day visit (June 24-26) meant to express his friendship and support for the Armenian people and the Armenian Apostolic Church, with which the Catholic Church has particularly close ties.
In a video-message on the eve of his visit, Francis told the 3 million inhabitants of Armenia, which shares borders with Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran, that he is coming as “a pilgrim, to draw on the ancient wisdom of your people and to steep myself in the sources of your faith” and as “your brother, to pray with you and to share the gift of friendship.”
His visit will be followed by many of the estimated 9 million Armenians in the diaspora, including 1.5 million in the United States and over 100,000 in his native Argentina, which is home to the largest Armenian community in any Spanish-speaking country. Indeed, from his friendship with Armenians in Buenos Aires, Francis knows well the history of the Armenian people. Throughout history, they have suffered invasions from Arabs and Turks, Ottomans and Persians, as well as a 20th century genocide, when 1.5 million of them were killed under the Ottoman Empire in 1915. It was part of the Soviet Union from 1936 until 1991 when it became an independent state on the dissolution of that union.
Francis confided, “your history and the events of your beloved people stir in me admiration and sorrow: admiration, for you have found in Jesus’ cross and in your own wits, the wherewithal ever to pick yourselves up and start anew—even after sufferings that are among the most terrible in human memory; pain, for the tragedies that your fathers have lived in their flesh.”
He is well aware that these tragic events have left a deep wound in the soul of all Armenians, and so he counseled them to “not allow the painful memories to take possession of our hearts; even in the face of the repeated assaults of evil, let us not give ourselves up.” Francis urged them to look to the future with hope, as Noah had done. This reference to Noah is linked to an ancient legend according to which Noah’s ark ended up on the snow-capped Mount Ararat (17,000 feet high), which dominates the northeastern highlands on which Yerevan, the capital city, was founded in 782 B.C.E. He reminded them that Noah, “after the flood, never tired of looking to heaven and releasing the dove again and again, until one day it came back to him, bringing a tender olive leaf: it was the sign that life could resume and [that] hope must rise” (Gen. 8:11).
Francis’ words of encouragement are particularly important given the current political and economic situation in this region of the Caucasus where Armenia finds itself still engaged in a simmering conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh and with Turkey on the opposite border. He is keen to contribute in whatever way he can to the consolidation of peace through dialogue in this region. He told them that he is coming “as a servant of the Gospel and a messenger of peace, to support [your] every effort towards peace” and to share together “our steps on the pathway of reconciliation, which generates hope.”
This visit to Armenia is the first of two that Francis is making this year to the region, which political and economic interests have turned into a veritable tinderbox. In late September and early October, he will visit neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan. He already visited Armenia’s other neighbor, Turkey, in Nov. 2014, and on the plane back to Rome said he hoped for the reopening of the border crossing between the two countries. Turkey closed in 1993 due to the escalation of Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Francis sees his visit to Armenia as returning the one made by the country’s political and religious leaders to the Vatican last year to participate in the mass commemorating the centenary of the 1915 genocide. Moreover, he sees it as a new opportunity to draw closer to the Armenian Apostolic Church and, together with Catholicos Karekin II, “to give fresh impetus to our path towards full unity.”
Like all his previous 13 foreign journeys, this one is action-packed and fast moving. Four events stand out. The first two events are his prayer at Tsitsernakaberd—the national memorial to the genocide of the Armenians—followed by an open-air mass in Gyumri, the country’s second largest city, hit by an earthquake in 1988 that left 60,000 dead. The third is his participation in the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan. The fourth major event comes just before his departure for Rome when he will visit the monastery of Khor Virab, which is close to the Turkish border. St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned here in a deep well for 13 years by the king who then contracted a serious illness. But thanks to the saint’s intercession, the king was cured and then asked for baptism. He subsequently declared Christianity the religion of his realm in 301 C.E., making it the world’s first Christian country.
Pope Francis is due to arrive at Yerevan international airport early in the afternoon on June 24, after a four-hour flight from Rome. There, he will be welcomed by the country’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, and the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All the Armenians, Karekin II, and will deliver the first of the six speeches he will give during his sojourn here.
From the airport he will drive to the Armenian Apostolic Church’s cathedral in the Apostolic See of Etchmiadzin to pray. Etchmiadzin, home to 56,000 inhabitants, is the Armenian Apostolic Church’s equivalent to the Vatican, and Francis will stay there in the home of Karekin II, as St. John Paul II did when he visited in 2001.
That evening, Francis will travel from Etchmiadzin to Yerevan, where he will pay a courtesy visit to the country’s president and deliver an important address to the Armenian authorities and the diplomatic corps. The talk will likely focus on the history of this people as well as the political tensions in the region.
The following morning, June 25, Francis will pray at Tsitsernakaberd and meet descendants of the genocide, known here as Metz Yeghern (the Great Evil). He commemorated its centenary in St. Peter’s Basilica on April 12, 2015, in the presence of the country’s civil and religious leaders, but greatly upset Turkey by referring to it as “genocide,” as John Paul II had done in 2001. He could perhaps decide to avoid that controversial word on this trip and opt instead for the term Metz Yeghernas, preferred by Armenians.
After visiting the memorial, Francis will fly to Gyumri, where he will celebrate the only public mass of his visit, which is expected to attract some 50,000 faithful, including many Catholics from Russia. He will visit an orphanage in the city run by Catholic nuns, eat with its guests and rest briefly there. That afternoon, after praying at the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic cathedrals, and before returning to Yerevan, he will participate in an ecumenical prayer service for peace.
On Sunday, June 26, he will first meet the country’s Catholic bishops, leaders of a small Catholic community that compromises 10 percent of the population. Afterward he will participate in the Divine Liturgy in the Apostolic Armenian cathedral in Yerevan and give a homily.
That afternoon, before returning to Rome, he will visit the monastery of Khor Virab, on a hill close to the border with Turkey, at the foot of Mount Ararat, where St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned, and which has become a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the world. There, Francis and Karekin II will release two doves of peace, in a gesture expressing a deep wish and prayer for the country and the region.