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On Friday 24 June the Pope sets off on his Armenian voyage, which will be a visit of profound ecumenical significance. The Bishop of Rome will not be staying at the Nunciature or at the residence of the Archbishop of the Armenian Catholic Church but will instead be hosted by the Catholicos, Karekin II, at his residence in Etchmiadzin, the Armenian apostolic Church’s equivalent of the Vatican. Francis did the same when he hosted some leaders of sister apostolic Churches and Orthodox Churches in his residence, St. Martha’s House. Living under the same roof for a couple of days gave him and his guests an opportunity for not only dialogue and informal exchanges, but moments of prayer as well. Ecumenism, dialogue between Churches, is more important than ever, not just as far as the Churches themselves – internally – are concerned but also for the testimony in a world torn apart by hatred and conflict. And there is a very strong bond of friendship and co-operation between Catholics and the Armenian Apostolic Church: the Church headed by the Catholicos is the one – before others – with which, Catholics could celebrate the Eucharist together.
It is important therefore, to bear this in mind in order to understand how the Pope and the Holy See in general do not want to turn the pilgrimage to Armenia into an occasion that will reignite and rekindle disputes and political and diplomatic clashes. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio cultivated a strong friendship with the Armenian community in Argentina; he would celebrate the genocide anniversaries, calling for the “Great Evil” to be recognised and commemorated.
In April 2015, Francis commemorated the centenary of the Armenian massacre, in St. Peter’s Basilica, in the presence of Armenia’s president and the Catholicos. On that occasion, although he was quoting the joint declaration signed by John Paul II and Karekin II in 2001, he described the Armenian experience as “the first genocide of the 20th century”. This gesture, the commemorative event which took place in the Vatican and the words used by the Pope, sparked serious tensions between the Vatican and Turkey.
Unlike John Paul II, Benedict XVI never used the word “genocide”, instead opting for: “the sadly significant name of Metz Yeghèrn, the great evil”, on 20 March 2006 when he received Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni, Patriarch of Cilicia of Armenian Catholics, accompanied by participants of the patriarchal synod.
When the schedule for Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia was published, there was an announcement about a Joint Declaration that was to be signed in Etchmiadzin, on Sunday 26 June, between Karekin II and the Pope.
However, during a briefing with journalists regarding the visit, the director of the Vatican Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, explained that said Declaration in “not currently foreseen”. It is likely that the Holy See and the Armenian Catholicosate have not yet reached an agreement on the text regarding the “Great Evil”. On this point, the words used by Armenia’s foreign affairs minister Garen Nazarian were revealing regarding Armenia’s expectations. In an interview with Zenit news agency, the minister recalled that celebrating the centenary with Pope Francis “ was, in a sense, an invitation to Turkey to come to terms with its past”.
Last week, on Saturday 18 June, the Bishop of Rome discussed the use of the term “genocide” in the conversation he had with young people at Villa Nazareth. In one of his replies, he said: “The destiny of Christians is witness, even in difficult situations. I do not like it, and I want to say this clearly, when we speak of the genocide of Christians, for instance in the Middle East; this is reductionism. … The truth is a persecution that leads Christians to the faithfulness and the coherence of their faith. Let us not transform a mystery of faith to sociological reductionism”. It should be noted that here, he was not referring to Armenia – where massacres took place on a shocking scale, with a million and a half lives being claimed and the killings were not only motivated by religion – but to the Middle East and the situation with ISIS.
The Pope’s words, were in any case telling in terms of his intention to commemorate Christian martyrdom and the “Great Evil” – an expression that is more commonly used by the Armenians and certainly no less strong than the word “genocide” – but without being the catalyst for turning a pilgrimage of friendship rooted in a common Christian faith, an ecumenical visit with the aim of being shining witnesses of dialogue, co-operation and unity, into something else. The aim is not to turn the visit into a cauldron of fresh international tensions at a time when there are quite enough of these and very serious ones indeed. Francis’ prayer at the Tzitzernakaberd Memorial Complex, which commemorates the “Great Evil”, on the morning of Saturday 25 June, is already laden with meaning and will be assign and an invitation to keep people’s memory alive, so that such monstrosities may never be repeated again.