VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis embarks on a three-day visit to Armenia on Friday, just over a year after he enraged Turkey by using the term genocide to describe the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire.
The Argentinian pontiff’s 14th overseas trip since his 2013 election is expected to see him highlight the Vatican’s concern over instability, conflict and the plight of Christians in the war-torn Middle East, which has resulted in his hosts having to welcome tens of thousands of refugees.
But his movements and statements will also be closely followed in Ankara, which rejects the idea that a genocide took place during World War I and has accused international powers of using disputed history as a means of bullying Turkey.
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 (16,929-feet) tall Mt 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 went there in 2001 to attend celebrations 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 slaughter of Armenians as genocide, although he did so only in writing.
Francis pronounced the word during a mass at St Peter’s last year, winning great praise from Armenians at the cost of infuriating Turkey, which withdrew its ambassador in protest.
Suffering and tragedies
Francis’s 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 morning, "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.
"By separating his visit to Armenia from his regional trip (to the Caucasus, later in autumn), Francis stresses that the Armenian Apostolic Church has a special place in the Christian world as a bearer of Christian values and its role in preserving these values."
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 it is unclear whether Francis will risk inflaming tensions with Turkey by doing so at any point.
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." — AFP