YEREVAN (Combined Sources) — Pope Francis returned to the Vatican after concluding a successful visit to Armenia, which delighted the small nation as well as Armenians around the world.
The world should never forget nor minimize the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians, Pope Francis declared Saturday, even as he urged Armenians to infuse their collective memory with love so they can find peace and reconcile with Turkey.
Turkey, though, did not budge. In its first reaction to the Roman Catholic Church leader’s recognition of the 1915 “genocide,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli called the comments “greatly unfortunate” and said they bore the hallmarks of the “mentality of the Crusades.”
Francis began his second day in Armenia by paying his respects at the country’s imposing genocide memorial and greeting descendants of survivors of the 1915 massacres, who have been emboldened by his comments upon arrival that the slaughter of Armenians a century ago was a planned “genocide” meant to annihilate an entire people.
The pontiff presented a wreath at the memorial and stood, head bowed, in silent prayer before an eternal flame as priests blessed him with incense and a choir sang haunting hymns.
“Here I pray with sorrow in my heart, so that a tragedy like this never again occurs, so that humanity will never forget and will know how to defeat evil with good,” Francis wrote in the memorial’s guest book. “May God protect the memory of the Armenian people. Memory should never be watered-down or forgotten. Memory is the source of peace and the future.”
He greeted descendants of the 400 or so Armenian orphans taken in by Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI at the papal summer residence south of Rome in the 1920s.
Also approaching Francis was Sosi Habeschyan, 68, and her sister; their mother was a genocide orphan adopted and raised by Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen, who worked in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and wrote about the massacre.
Francis returned to the theme of memory during a Mass in Gumri, where several thousand people gathered in a square for his only public Mass of his three-day visit to Armenia.
“Peoples, like individuals, have a memory,” he told the crowd from the altar. “Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious.”
Francis again raised the importance of memory at an evening prayer in Yerevan’s Republic Square, drawing the largest crowds of his visit — about 50,000, according to Vatican estimates.
With the patriarch of the Apostolic Church, Karekin II, by his side and President Serzh Sargsyan in the front row, Francis said even the greatest pain “can become a seed of peace for the future.”
Pope Francis defended using the term “genocide”, saying Sunday that’s how he has always referred to the massacre, he didn’t mean anything offensive by it and that it would have been “very strange” to have avoided it.
Turkey accused Francis of adopting a “Crusades”-like mentality by terming the 1915 killings a “genocide” during his three-day visit to Armenia — a charge the Vatican strongly dismissed.
Asked Sunday en route home from Armenia why he decided to add “genocide” into his prepared remarks, Francis said it was simply the term that he had always used in Argentina, where he was close to the Armenian community.
“When we spoke of the Armenian extermination, the word we used was ‘genocide.’ I didn’t know any other,” he said. Only after arriving in Rome as pope did he learn of other phrases — the “Great Evil” or the “terrible tragedy” — and that “genocide” carried legal weight given Armenian claims for restitution.
But Francis said he decided to use the word Friday in his welcome speech at the Armenian presidential palace since he had said it before, St. John Paul II had said it before, and “it would have seemed very strange to not say it in Armenia.”
He added: “I have never said it with an offensive spirit, but objectively.”
Francis wrapped up his trip Sunday with calls for closer ties with Armenia’s Oriental Orthodox church and a joint declaration with the Apostolic Church leader on the plight of Christians in the Mideast. He also visited a monastery near Armenia’s closed western border with Turkey, where he and the Armenian patriarch released two white doves of peace.
But it was Francis’ recognition on Day 1 that the 1915 slaughter by Ottoman Turks of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians constituted planned “genocide” that continued to reverberate.
Turkey issued a harsh rebuttal late Saturday, with Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli calling the comments untrue, “greatly unfortunate” and saying they bore the hallmarks of the “mentality of the Crusades.”
On Sunday, Francis turned his attention to religious affairs, participating in an open-air liturgy on the grounds of the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Echmiadzin, the seat of the Oriental Orthodox church here. The landlocked nation of 3 million was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301.
Amid haunting chants, Francis processed up and down the central walkway of the Echmiadzin complex alongside the patriarch, Catholicos Karekin II, both walking under a gold-brocaded canopy as incense furled around them. During the 2-hour service celebrated by Karekin, Francis stood to the side of the altar and offered a greeting calling for greater unity between the two churches.
“May an ardent desire for unity rise up in our hearts, a unity that must not be the submission of one to the other, or assimilation, but rather the acceptance of all the gifts that God has given to each,” he said. “Let us pay heed to the younger generation, who seek a future free of past divisions.”
The Armenian Apostolic church and a few other Oriental Orthodox churches split from the Catholic Church in the 5th century in a dispute over the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. The division arose some six centuries before the Great Schism that split the rest of Orthodoxy from Rome.
While still divided over the primacy of the pope, the Apostolic and Catholic churches have friendly relations. Francis and his papal delegation stayed at the Echmiadzin cathedral complex as guests of Karekin.
The two men expressed their joint concern for Islamic extremist attacks against Christians in the Middle East.
“The martyrs belong to all the churches and their suffering is an ‘ecumenism of blood’ which transcends the historical divisions between Christians, calling us all to promote the visible unity of Christ’s disciples,” the declaration read.
It repeated a line from a 2001 declaration penned by St. John Paul II and Karekin that the slaughter of Armenians was the “first genocide of the 20th century,” and hailed the progress made in warming relations.
After Sunday’s liturgy and a formal luncheon, Francis headed west toward Armenia’s border with Turkey to visit the Khor Virap monastery, one of the most sacred sites in Armenia. The monastery lies in the shadow of Mt. Ararat, where, according to legend, Noah landed his Ark after a great flood. He and Karekin released two white doves in a message of peace toward Turkey.
Pope Francis hailed the Vatican’s “growing closeness” with the Armenian Apostolic Church and called for an eventual union between the two Christian denominations at the end of a three-day visit to Armenia on Sunday.
In a joint declaration, Francis and Catholicos Karekin II pledged to promote Christian unity around the world by further deepening relations between their ancient churches.
They also expressed concern at the “secularization” of contemporary societies, reaffirmed their opposition to same-sex marriage, condemned the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and urged world powers to end bloody conflicts in and outside the region.
“In this regard we also express our hope for a peaceful resolution of the issues surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh,” they said in the statement signed at Karekin’s headquarters in Echmiadzin, a small town near Yerevan.
After the signing ceremony, Francis and Karekin headed to the nearby historic monastery of Khor Virap where they prayed together and released two doves symbolizing peace towards Mount Ararat situated just a few kilometers away in Turkey.
Khor Virap was built at the site of a dungeon where St. Gregory the Illuminator, the first Armenian Catholicos, had been imprisoned before convincing King Tiridates III to adopt Christianity as Armenia’s state religion.
Francis repeatedly paid tribute to Armenia’s Christian heritage during the trip that set another milestone in a rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Armenian churches. The two churches essentially ended their long-standing theological differences with a joint statement issued in 1996. In 2001, John Paul II became the first Pope to have ever visited Armenia.
Successive Armenian governments have similarly sought closer ties with the Vatican. President Serzh Sargsyan attended Francis’s papal inauguration in 2013 and again visited the Vatican in 2014 and 2015.
Sargsyan, whose influential son-in-law is Armenia’s ambassador to the Holy See, attended most of Francis’s engagements in Armenia, including an ecumenical service held in Yerevan’s biggest square on Saturday.
Francis and Karekin praised “the continuing and growing closeness in faith and love” between their churches. “Today we are convinced of the crucial importance of furthering this relationship, engaging in deeper and more decisive collaboration not only in the area of theology, but also in prayer and active cooperation on the level of the local communities, with a view to sharing full communion and concrete expressions of unity,” they said in their declaration.
Francis made a case for a complete reunion when he attended and addressed an open-air Armenian Apostolic mass held by Karekin II in Echmiadzin on Sunday morning. He called for “a unity that must not be the submission of one to the other, or assimilation, but rather the acceptance of all the gifts that God has given to each.”
“We and our people will always pray for you, my beloved Brother, and your endeavors for the sake of the welfare and peaceful life of humankind,” Karekin said for his part.
The joint declaration by the two men stresses the importance of global Christian unity in the context of an “immense tragedy” suffered by ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. “The martyrs belong to all the Churches and their suffering is an ‘ecumenism of blood’ which transcends the historical divisions between Christians, calling us all to promote the visible unity of Christ’s disciples,” it says.
In a clear reference to Islamist extremism, the document condemns a “presentation of religion and religious values in a fundamentalist way.”
Francis and Karekin further deplored the declining role of religion in many Christian nations. “The secularization of large sectors of society, its alienation from the spiritual and divine, leads inevitably to a desacralized and materialistic vision of man and the human family,” they said. “In this respect we are concerned about the crisis of the family in many countries.”
The declaration emphasizes that both churches believe that marriage can only be an act of “faithful love between man and woman.”
Karekin’s sermon delivered at the Echmiadzin mass contained emphatic defense of this and other religious values. He went as far as to assert that attempts to “build a world without God” are at the root of political, socioeconomic and even environmental problems facing humanity.
Greater Recognition for Genocide
Armenia expects more countries to recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide after remarks by Pope Francis and the stance taken by Germany’s parliament, President Serzh Sargsyan said.
Germany’s lower house adopted a resolution this month declaring the killings of Christian Armenians by Ottoman forces in World War One a “genocide”, a term used by many Western historians and parliaments, but rejected by Ankara.
During a visit to Armenia on Friday, the pope departed from his prepared text to use the term, angering Turks.
“The principled position of the pope and the views expressed by the Bundestag will pave the way for new recognitions by other nations,” Sargsyan told Reuters in an interview.
“Germany is a very important and significant actor on the international stage and this [decision] will serve as a good example for other nations to follow and to learn from it,” he said.
Sargsyan criticized Turkey’s position over its aspiration to join the European Union, saying Ankara was trying to use a policy of dictatorship to bring pressure to bear on the bloc.
“I don’t think that Turkey is … an actor that can impose its views, or exercise pressure, on the European Union,” he said. “I don’t honestly see any prospects that would pave the way for Turkey joining the EU.”
The Vatican has defended the pope’s stand on the Armenian genocide as an ideology aimed at bringing peace and reconciliation, not war, and rebuking Ankara’s vocal criticism of Francis’ alleged “crusader” mentality.
Repeated references to the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks made by Pope Francis during his three-day visit to Armenia, has sparked condemnation by Turkish officials.
After the pontiff made his first statement on the topic as soon as he arrived in Yerevan on Friday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli called Francis’ statements “greatly unfortunate” which Ankara does not “take seriously.”
“The goal is to squeeze Turkey in the corner,” said Canikli on Saturday, accusing Francis of siding with European Union values. “It is, unfortunately, possible to see all the reflections and traces of crusader mentality in the actions of the papacy and the pope.”
On Sunday, the director of the Vatican Press Office strongly dismissed Turkish accusations of a ‘Crusades’ mentality when the pope used the word ‘genocide’ to describe the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians a century ago.
Father Federico Lombardi said that neither Francis’ statements nor his actions ever suggested a Crusades-like mentality of the pontiff. The focus of Francis, according to Vatican is to resurrect the “spirit of dialogue.”
“The pope is on no crusade,” Lombardi said. “He is not trying to organize wars or build walls but he wants to build bridges… he has said no words against the Turkish people,” Vatican Radio reported.
Despite steaming criticism from Turkey, the Pope has once again made a reference to the tragic events of last century when he remembered the “victims of hatred” for the third consecutive day, as he concluded his tour of Armenia.
May the Armenian Church walk in peace and may the communion between us be complete,” Francis said at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy in the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin. “Let us respond to the appeal of the saints, let us listen to the voices of the humble and poor, of the many victims of hatred who suffered and gave their lives for the faith.
“Let us pay heed to the younger generation, who seek a future free of past divisions…may there be joined the light of the love that forgives and reconciles,” Francis added.
(Reports from RFE/RL, Reuters, Associated Press, Russia Times and Vatican Radio were used to compile this report.)