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A mission to promote truth and healing of splits

YEREVAN (SE): Although the main text of Pope Francis during his June 24 to 26 visit to Armenia was Christian unity and peace, his visit will be mostly remembered for his explosive description of the deaths of over one million people in the country at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in April 1915 as genocide.

Speaking in the Armenian capital of Yerevan on the day of his arrival, Pope Francis departed from his prepared text and referred to the massacre of just over 100 years ago as genocide.

The last time he used the word in that context evoked an international incident with Turkey, which took about eight months to resolve, as Istanbul has continually insisted that many Turks were also among the numbers of the dead.

Nevertheless, the pope called the massacre a great evil “that struck your people and caused the deaths of a large number of persons.”

But he was also critical of the international community of the time, saying, “The great world powers looked the other way.”

He couched his comment in the context of calling on all religions and nations in the world to seek peace through peaceful means.

“May all join in striving to ensure that whenever conflicts emerge between nations, dialogue, the enduring and authentic quest for peace, cooperation between states and the constant commitment of international organisations will always prevail, with the aim of creating a climate of trust for the achievement of lasting agreements.”

However, the pope was also conscious that he was stepping foot on what is arguably the oldest continuously Christian soil in the world. Armenia has an almost three-millennia-long history and popular belief has it as the landing place of Noah’s Ark.

Historical evidence shows that the first cathedral was built in 303AD and legend says that it was on a spot designated by Christ when he appeared in a dream to St. Gregory the Illuminator—from whom the modern city takes its name—Etchmaidzin.

“It is very moving for me to have crossed the threshold of this holy place, a witness to the history of your people and the centre from which its spirituality radiates. I consider it a precious gift from God to be able to approach the altar from which the light of Christ shone forth in Armenia,” Pope Francis said.

He added that the Christian faith has become the very essence of Armenian identity, as it became the religion of the state long before the emperor in Rome, Constantine, adopted it for his empire.

“For Armenia, faith in Christ has not been like a garment to be donned or doffed as circumstances or convenience dictate,” the pope said, “but an essential part of identity, a gift of immense significance, to be accepted with joy, preserved with great effort and strength, even at the cost of life itself.”

He then quoted his predecessor as saying that with the baptism of Armenia, the people acquired a new identity that became an inseparable part of Armenian life.

He lamented the division that still exists among the Christian people of Armenia, which also has a long history, as in 506AD, a disagreement over the doctrine of the two natures of Christ ended up in a split into the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church and, in 554AD, with a further split in the Orthodox in 1441, neither of which have ever been healed.

However, the pope gave thanks for the ecumenical outreach that has been made in recent times by the Catholicos of All Armenians, Vasken I, and Catholicos Karekin II, from the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Pope Francis said that a sincere ecumenical spirit prevents the exploitation and manipulation of faith, as it requires a rediscovery of its authentic roots and the spread of truth with respect for the dignity of every human being.

“In this way, we offer to the world, which so urgently needs it, a convincing witness that Christ is alive and at work, capable of opening new paths of reconciliation among the nations, civilisations and religions,” he said.

He left the country with the continuing split in the Christian witness in mind, simply praying, “That all may be one” (John 17:21).

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