Yerevan (AFP) – Pope Francis began his three-day visit to Armenia on Friday with a denunciation of the mass killing of Armenians a century ago by Ottoman forces as “genocide”, risking Turkey’s fury.
The pontiff — who is making his 14th overseas trip since he was elected in 2013 — invoked a term Turkish authorities have vehemently rejected during a meeting with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian.
“Sadly this tragedy, this genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century,” Francis said at the presidential palace in Yerevan.
When Pope Francis last used the term in the Vatican in 2015, on the centenary of the killings, Ankara angrily recalled its envoy from the Holy See for nearly a year.
The pontiff expressed the hope that “humanity will learn from those tragic experiences” to prevent a “return to such horrors.”
Armenians have long sought international recognition for the 1915-1917 killings as genocide, which they say left some 1.5 million of their people dead.
Turkey — the Ottoman Empire’s successor state — argues that it was a collective tragedy in which equal numbers of Turks and Armenians died.
The pontiff also highlighted the plight of Christians in the war-torn Middle East, with Armenia taking in many refugees.
“Today Christians in particular, perhaps even more than at the time of the first martyrs, in some places experience discrimination and persecution for the mere fact of professing their faith,” he said.
On his way to Yerevan, Francis also commented on Britain’s decision to exit the European Union, telling reporters Europe must ensure the well-being of member states’ citizens.
“The people’s will has been expressed,” Francis said. “This requires of us great responsibility to ensure the well-being of the people of Great Britain, as well as well-being and coexistence of the whole European continent.”
– Visit highlights –
Highlights of the papal trip will include a visit to Armenia’s main memorial to the 1915-17 killings, a meeting with members of the country’s small Roman Catholic community and the release of two doves in the direction of Mount Ararat from the Khor Virap sanctuary near the border with Turkey.
The 5,160-metre (16,900-feet) high Mount Ararat was Armenian until 1915 and is now located inside Turkey. It features in the Bible as the place where Noah’s Ark supposedly came to rest.
Francis is the second pope to visit Armenia since it re-emerged as an independent state from the ashes of the Soviet Union.
John Paul II attended celebrations in 2001 marking 1,700 years of the adoption of Christianity in Armenia, which was the first country to have the faith as its state religion.
John Paul was also the first pope to recognise the killing of Armenians as genocide, although he did so only in writing.
– Suffering and tragedies –
Francis’ visit “bears religious, political, and humanitarian messages,” said Father Shahe Ananyan, a cleric in the Armenian Apostolic Church, to which the vast majority of the country’s population belong.
By visiting the Tsitsernakaberd genocide memorial on Saturday, “the pontiff makes it clear that he is steadfast in his position on the matter,” Ananyan added.
“This is a message to the entire Catholic world, to those who didn’t yet recognise the genocide. This will favour international recognition.”
Over 13,000 people have booked tickets to attend the mass the pope will preside over in Gyumri with pilgrims from Lebanon and Georgia’s Armenian-populated Javakheti region expected to be among them.
In an Armenian-rite mass at St Peter’s basilica in April 2015, Francis said the massacres suffered by Armenians between 1915 and 1917 are “widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century”.
Vatican officials have avoided using the term in the build-up to the visit and a copy of the pope’s Friday speech distributed in advance did not contain the word.
In a video message to the Armenian people ahead of the trip, Francis said their history provoked pain and admiration.
“Admiration because you have found in Jesus’s cross and in your spirit, the ability to always recover, including from suffering that has been among the worst humanity has experienced, pain for the tragedies that your fathers lived in the flesh.”