06/23/2016, 19.28
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Pope Francis in Armenia, a pilgrim in the land of Christian martyrs

by Pierre Balanian

This visit is first and foremost a way of sharing with the first Christian people in history, marked by the genocide. There is also the ecumenical value of fraternity with the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the prophetic quality for peace in the Caucasus, a crossroad between Asia and Europe. Here are the views of a Diaspora Armenian.

Paris (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis is getting ready to travel to Armenia. His visit will last from Friday to Sunday (24-26 June). The pontiff comes, as he said himself, “as a pilgrim” to the “the first Christian country” in the world. Eagerly awaited by the people, the visit follows that of John Paul II’s trip in 2001.

Pope Francis "has been able to touch the soul of this ancient people,” wrote Noyan Daban, an Armenian newspaper, by mentioning the "first genocide of the 20th century", that of 1915, which is "one of the three great tragedies of the last century with the Holocaust", which the pontiff mentioned last year in St Peter’s Basilica during the centennial memorial Mass for the victims in the presence of Armenian patriarchs.

As a token of its sensitivity, the Holy See chose 12 April, not 24 April, to commemorate the genocide, that is the actual day in the old calendar when Ottoman authorities began arresting Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul.

The Holy See was the first state in the world to mark the centennial of the genocide, even before Armenia itself, a step highly appreciated by more than 10 million Armenians, descendants of the survivors, scattered around the world, one that has deeply touched many a heart.

This has somehow wiped the slate clean of the Vatican’s long silence vis-à-vis this thorny issue, which Turkey, a Western ally, has always denied. Armenians have also always seen Western silence as a form of complicity.

Words have meaning and power. Even though it might appear unnecessary for the pontiff to remember this again, people expect it and want to hear it again on Armenian soil.

The Holy Father will have that opportunity to do so this Saturday morning when he visits the Armenian Genocide Memorial complex at Tsitsernakaberd. Here he will recite a prayer and plant a tree in the Garden of the Righteous in memory of non-Armenians who helped Armenians at the time of the genocide.

Even though Turkey has warned the Holy Father not to say genocide again, "I have no doubt that the pope will use it," said Fr Louis Nammo, rector of the Pontifical Armenian College in Rome.

Conversely, some Turkish observers believe the pope might refer to it as the Medz Yeghern, or Great Evil in Armenian, as US President Obama did.

Whatever the case, the visit – originally planned for September and then moved up to early June following four days of fighting in Nagorno Karabakh – is full of messages of peace of great importance.

No one can ignore the fact that the resumption of hostilities between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan could drag the whole world into a Third World War, because of the mutual defence agreements between Russia and Armenia on the one hand and Turkey (with NATO) and Azerbaijan on the other.

The news of the presence of Daesh fighters (from Syria, Iraq and Turkey) in Azerbaijan is a source of great concern for the Holy See and half the world.

This gave rise to the idea of ​​the pope releasing two doves towards Mount Ararat during the visit to the monastery of Khor Virab, where Armenia's evangeliser, Saint Gregory the Illuminator, was imprisoned in 301, just a few hundred metres from the border with Turkey.

The Bible says that the first dove that took off from here was that of Noah, whose ark ran aground on Ararat after humanity was destroyed by the Flood. Hence, there is a need to remind humanity of that danger and stress that the decision to release two doves, not one, comes from the need for peaceful borders.

The pope really would like to see the Turkish-Armenian border reopen. He said as much on the plane that took him to Turkey in 2014. During that visit, however, he met with a cold shoulder on the issue of Syrian refugees.

Francis noted that that Armenia is “the first Christian country” in the world since Christianity became state religion 11 years before the emperor Constantine guaranteed religious freedom.

Armenia, in fact, is the only country in the world that is 98 per cent Christian at a time when the East is losing its Christians persecuted by Islamic jihadist groups and others.

The decision to visit Armenia independently from a planned visit to the Caucasus (Georgia and Azerbaijan) in September highlights the special importance the Vatican attaches to Armenia and its role in the region.

For the Holy See, the ecumenical importance of Christian union is better expressed with respect to Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin where the pontiff will be received by the Catholicos and Armenian Patriarchs. In a highly symbolic move, it is here, the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church, rather than in the Armenian Catholic Eparchy, that the pontiff will meet Armenian Catholic bishops.

Francis’s visit to the Caucasian powder keg of – a region of extreme strategic importance, a crossroad between Asia and Europe, a place that could become a haven of peace – is important.

Let us address our prayers to the Lord that the two doves may return with an olive branch to where they were released for the sake and peace of all mankind.

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