YEREVAN, Armenia – Pope Francis is wrapping up his trip to Armenia with a Sunday liturgy in the Apostolic cathedral celebrated by his Orthodox hosts and a visit to Armenia’s closed border with Turkey amid new tensions with Ankara over his recognition of the 1915 “genocide.”
Turkey issued a harsh rebuttal late Saturday to Francis’ declaration upon arrival in Armenia that the slaughter was a planned genocide to exterminate Armenians. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli called the comments “greatly unfortunate” and said they bore the hallmarks of the “mentality of the Crusades.”
Turkey rejects the term, saying the 1.5 million deaths cited by historians is an inflated figure and that people died on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed amid World War I. When Francis first used it last year, Turkey withdrew its ambassador for 10 months and accused Francis of spreading lies.
Canikli said the term “does not comply with the truth.”
“Everyone knows that. We all know it, the whole world knows it, and so do the Armenians,” he added.
Francis made the remarks at the start of his three-day visit and followed up with a call for the world to never forget or minimize the “immense and senseless slaughter.”
On Sunday, he was turning his attention more toward religious affairs, participating in a liturgy in the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Oriental Orthodox church here. The landlocked nation of 3 million was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301.
The Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches split in a theological dispute over the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ, arising from the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon. While still divided over the primacy of thepope, the Armenian church has established friendly relations with the Vatican, and Francis’ visit here has been a visible testimony to their close ties.
After the liturgy, Francis was due to head west toward Armenia’s border with Turkey.
Turkey closed the frontier in support for its ally and ethnic kin, Azerbaijan, after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted into a full-scale war in 1992. The blockade has worsened Armenia’s economic problems.
Francis has said he would love to see the border reopened, given his longstanding call for countries to build bridges, not walls, at their frontiers.
Francis is due to release a dove of peace near the border at the Khor Virap monastary. The monastary is one of the most sacred sites in Armenia and lies in the shadow of Mount Ararat, where according to legend, Noah landed his Ark after the great floods.
On Saturday, Francis paid his respects at Armenia’s imposing genocide memorial and greeted descendants of survivors of the 1915 massacres.
“Here I pray with sorrow in my heart, so that a tragedy like this never again occurs, so that humanity will never forget and will know how to defeat evil with good,” Francis wrote in the memorial’s guest book. “May God protect the memory of the Armenian people. Memory should never be watered-down or forgotten. Memory is the source of peace and the future.”
Francis also greeted descendants of the 400 or so Armenian orphans taken in by Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI at the papal summer residence south of Rome in the 1920s.
“A blessing has come down on the land of Mt. Ararat,” said Andzhela Adzhemyan, a 35-year old refugee from Syria who was a guest at the memorial. “He has given us the strength and confidence to keep our Christian faith no matter what.”
Francis returned to the theme of memory during a Mass in Gyumri, where several thousand people gathered in a square for his only public Catholic Mass of his three-day visit to Armenia. Nestled in the rolling green hills and wildflower fields of northwestern Armenia, Gyumri has long been a cradle of Christianity, and Francis came to pay homage to its faith even in times of trial.
“Peoples, like individuals, have a memory,” he told the crowd from the altar. “Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious.”
Francis again raised the importance of memory at an evening prayer in Yerevan’s Republic Square, which drew the largest crowds of his visit, some 50,000 according to Vatican estimates. With the patriarch of the Apostolic Church, Karekin II, by his side and President Serzh Sargsyan in the front row, Francis said even the greatest pain “can become a seed of peace for the future.”
“Memory, infused with love, becomes capable of setting out on new and unexpected paths, where designs of hatred become projects of reconciliation, where hope arises for a better future for everyone,” he said.
He specifically called for Armenia and Turkey to take up the “path of reconciliation” and said: “May peace also spring forth in Nagorno-Karabakh.”