This morning Francis sets off on his 14th international visit, a trip to a forgotten country: Armenia. This was the first country to become Christian and is still being crushed by the shadows of a horrific past, the systematic killing of one and a half million people at the hands of the Turks a hundred years ago. But even today, danger’s just around the corner because of the tensions that continue to exist on the border with Turkey and with Azerbaijan on the other side. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh (the majority of the population here is Armenian) remains the subject of an unresolved dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is precisely for this reason that half of the state budget goes to the Ministry of Defence and to arms which are used to protect the border. The country is suffering at the moment, also as a result of the economic crisis.
Pope Francis’ friendship with the Armenian people goes way back: Argentina’s Armenian community found a supporter in the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. The purpose of his visit is mainly ecumenical: he wants to show his closeness and collaboration with the Armenian Apostolic Church led by Catholicos Karekin II. The fact that the Pope has been invited to stay in the Apostolic Palace in Etchmiadzin, the Armenian equivalent of the Vatican. Francis will spend his three-day and two night-long stay in Karekin II’s palace, as John Paul II did during his visit 15 years ago.
One of the most emotional parts of his trip will definitely be his visit to the Tzitzernakaberd Memorial Complex on Saturday morning. The memorial commemorates the “Great Evil”, in other words the Armenian genocide of 1915. In April 2015, Francis decided to mark the centenary of the massacre, with a celebration in St. Peter’s. 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”. These words sparked serious diplomatic tensions between the Vatican and Turkey. Unlike John Paul II, Benedict XVI never used the word “genocide”.
A Joint Declaration signed by Francis and Karekin II had been announced for Sunday, at the end of the Pope’s trip. But in recent days, Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi said this was “currently” not on the agenda. It is likely that parties were unable to agree on the term to use to refer to the “Great Evil”. The Armenian authorities had been hoping for an outright condemnation of Turkey’s denial of the genocide. But with everything that is going on in the Middle East at the moment, not to mention the refugee crisis, Francis was not keen on adding fuel to the fire: this visit is of a religious, not political nature. The Armenian massacre will be commemorated first and foremost with prayer.