06/15/2016, 19.50
ARMENIA – VATICAN
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Armenian bishop: Church and faithful materially and spiritually preparing for the pope's visit

Mgr Minassian, Ordinary for Eastern Europe’s Armenian Catholics, talks about how Catholics are preparing for Francis’s visit.  There is a feeling “of faith that touches a deep psychological, sentimental and human core,” the bishop noted. The pope “has special affection” for the Armenian people. Giant screens are being set up for large crowds. People will come long distances to see Francis, and thank him for what he said about the genocide.

Yerevan (AsiaNews) – The Armenian Church, the Christian community, and the faithful share "the same feeling of excitement", spiritually and materially preparing for the Pope Francis’s visit on 24-26 June, said Mgr Raphael François Minassian, Armenian Catholic Bishop of Yerevan, Ordinary for Eastern Europe’s Armenian Catholics.

“Some 23,000 people have signed up for Mass” in Vartanants Square in Gyumri, he said. “Many more would like to come, but there is no room.” Hence, “we are setting up a big screen in another square" to give others a chance to "follow the celebration".

Armenia is the first stop on the pope’s apostolic visit to the Caucasus. After Armenia, the pontiff will visit Georgia and Azerbaijan in late September. Back in April, the region saw renewed tensions in a decades-old conflict that has never been settled.

After few weeks of clashes and more than a hundred victims in Nagorno Karabakh, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a truce, thus averting an escalation in the violence.

"We live in a climate of great expectation,” Mgr Minassian said, “especially among ordinary people. Even in the remotest villages people would like to participate in the event. Some people will walk more than an hour to reach the nearest bus stop, to get to the city to attend the papal Mass.”

There is a feeling “of faith that touches a deep psychological, sentimental and human core,” the bishop explained. “Ours is a community that is waiting, thirsty for spirituality, that has love for the Church and union with the Holy Father."

The solemn Mass in Gyumri and the ecumenical prayer for peace in Yerevan will be some of the highlights of the pope's visit. But for Mgr Minassian, the event has a "double value".

On the one hand, it shows that Francis "cares for the Armenian people" and the country as the "first Christian nation in history that bore witness to its faith for centuries in martyrdom,” and for whom the pope “has special affection".

On the other hand, Armenians will be able to thank the pontiff for “speaking so boldly before the world about the Armenian genocide of 1915".

During the commemoration in the Vatican in April 2015, Francis said that of the Armenian was the "first genocide of the 20th century", remarks met by threats from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The pontiff sent a message to the Armenian people, and delivered to the patriarchs on the occasion of the centennial celebrations, in which he called for the resumption of the "journey of reconciliation" between Turks and Armenians.

"Many countries have politicised and exploited this tragedy,” Mgr Minassian said. “The pope used clear and simple words; this is why we have a debt of gratitude towards him."

Speaking about the Armenian Catholic community, the bishop (pictured, with a group of young people) noted that "despite having lived for 35 years in many countries of the world, including the United States, Israel and other parts of the Middle East, I have never seen a faith so deeply rooted."

Suffering and distance from religion “are expressed today through a strong, rigorous feeling. This faith has made me weep,” he said. It is so moving when people come up at the end of every service to give me a hug or ask me for my blessing.

"People surround you, and don’t want to let go even if the service is long (up to three hours, especially in the Armenian Church). The faithful thirst for a blessing; they want to be touched. For them, the devotional aspect is strong.”

The Christian faith "is not any affiliation”, but is part "of the flesh and spirit" that also come out in the actions carried out in the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

"I had brought a brick from the holy door as token of symbolic union with the universal Church,” he said. Worshippers and the parish priest took it and place it inside the cathedral’s wall in order get a blessing every time they go in and come out.”

For them, “Mercy is experienced through acts of spiritual devotion, prayers and meditation, as well as initiatives that unite all the country's churches, big and small."

Armenians are a "traditional people" who have kept alive "the same ritual over the centuries". Their strength lies in their identity and sense of belonging.

"We are waiting for the pope's visit, for his words, which we shall receive with love and affection,” he said. “We shall welcome with joy his every expression of faith.”

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1946, Mgr Raphael François Minassian entered the Lebanese seminary in Rome in 1966 and was ordained in 1973. From 1996 to 2006, he served as a pastor for Armenian Catholics in California.

For eight years, he was chief editor-in-chief of the magazine Avetaber Verelk, and founded an Armenian television station in 2005. Some of its programmes are rebroadcast by Telepace*. In 2011 Pope Benedict XVI appointed him Ordinary for Eastern Europe’s Armenian Catholics.

The Armenian Catholic Church is a patriarchal Catholic Church sui iuris founded in 1742. It was recognised by Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58).

Today it is present in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Palestine and other countries with Armenian communities. The number of members is estimated at 585,000 (2010).

* Telepace is an Italy-based broadcasting network that carries Roman Catholic-themed programming.

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