Pope Francis is planning a trip to Armenia, a country with a long Christian history and a troubled past.
The June 24-26 trip comes in response to an invitation from the patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, and from the government. Later, the pope will travel to neighbouring countries, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Sept. 30 - Oct. 2. In all three nations, Pope Francis will be the second pope to visit. Pope John Paul II visited Armenia in 2001, Georgia in 1999 and Azerbaijan in 2002.
Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official state religion, an event traditionally dated to AD 301. According to tradition, the Armenian Church was founded by two of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles — Thaddaeus and Bartholomew — who preached Christianity in Armenia between AD 40 – 60. Because of these two founding apostles, the official name of the Armenian Church is Armenian Apostolic Church.
The predominant religion in Armenia is Christianity.
Of the country's three million inhabitants, the Vatican says about 280,000 are Catholic, belonging either to the Latin rite or to the Armenian Catholic Church, an Eastern church in full communion with Rome. Over 93 per cent of Armenian Christians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenian Apostolic Church is in communion only with a group of churches within Oriental Orthodoxy.
In April 2015, Pope Francis proclaimed a 10th-century Armenian monk, St. Gregory of Narek, a doctor of the church during a liturgy the pope concelebrated with leaders of the Armenian Catholic patriarchate.
Armenia frequently oscillated between Byzantine, Persian, Mongol, Turkish or Soviet control, as well as periods of independence. Its troubled history includes a tragic genocide from 1915-17 that took an estimated 1.5 million lives. The genocide was implemented by neighbouring Turkey in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labour, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Military escorts deprived the deportees of food and water and subjected them to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre. This has been called the first genocide of the 20th century.
Turkey disputes the designation of genocide. Turkey says the dead were victims of the First World War and that ethnic Turks also suffered in the conflict. Tensions remain between the two countries, though they agreed to normalize relations in October 2009.
Tensions between the Vatican and Turkey also erupted when Pope Francis used the term "genocide" in an April 2015 talk in St. Peter's Basilica to a gathering of Armenian Christians, including Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
Turkey called its ambassador to the Vatican home for 10 months and only sent him back to the Vatican when the Vatican issued a communiqué that "noted and appreciated" Turkey's repeated commitment "to make its archives available to historians and researchers of interested parties . . . including the tragic events of 1915.”
Turkey is the home of Mount Ararat— the reputed resting place of Noah’s Ark; many groups have hunted for it there — all to no avail. Ararat is close to the Armenian border, but is not on the pope’s agenda. Hopefully, peace and unity will be easier to find than the remains of the Ark.