Coming on the heels of the centenary of the Armenian genocide, Pope Francis' upcoming visit to the Caucasus nation is a sign of appreciation for the fidelity to Christianity, said one prelate involved in preparations for the trip.
“The Holy Father comes (in) appreciation to the Armenian nation for their fidelity to Christianity, to their faith, to their resistance, and to their culture,” said Archbishop Raphael Minassian, the Armenian Ordinary of Eastern Europe, in an interview with CNA.
“I believe this is also a sign, a heavenly sign, to have the Holy Father in Armenia as a consolation, as a defense for (human rights), and the (strengthening) of society to continue to witness the mission that was given by our Lord to this nation, which is Christianity.”
Archbishop Minassian explained that Armenia is a “Christian nation,” and even while under communist rule, “they kept their faith very strong, inside, in the families.”
Armenia's national church is the Armenian Apostolic Church — an Oriental Orthodox Church to which 93 percent of the population belongs. The country also prides itself on having been the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in 301.
The Pope's June 24-26 visit to Armenia comes little over a hundred years after the 1915 Armenian genocide, during which some 1.5 million Christians were killed by the Ottoman Empire, and millions more displaced.
The Pope's visit also comes fifteen years after St. John Paul II's 2001 visit to Armenia, during which “he encouraged these people to restart and strengthen their faith and their moral social life,” Archbishop Minassian said.
A decade and a half later, the people of Armenia “are faithful, they’re continuing their Christian faith,” he continued.
“Practically, the new generation is completely different, but still lives under the shadow of the millions of millions of martyrs that this nation gave to the universal Church.”
Although accepted as historical fact by most entities — most recently, on June 2, Germany's parliament — the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan deny that there was a genocide, while other countries, including the United States, avoid officially recognizing it as such.
“The genocide is a crime. I don’t understand either why so many countries have refused to pronounce this word,” Archbishop Minassian said. “The crime is against humanity, and this crime occurred against the Armenians.”
He noted that “The Holy Father goes to announce the peace to the world. It is not (because of) political issues that he goes to (Armenia), unless to give this sign and this witnessing of Jesus Christ in the world.”
Asked about the significance of whether or not Pope Francis himself uses the term genocide during the visit, the prelate said: “the role of the Holy Father is to defend the weak and the people who lost their voice in this world.”
Francis' visit this summer includes a stop at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex, which was built in memorial of those who perished in the genocide, as well as time for ecumenical meetings and prayers for peace, according to the schedule released by the Vatican.
This month's trip to the country comes at the invitation of Karekin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church; the nation's civil authorities; and the local Catholic Church.
The Roman Pontiff had expressed his wish to go to Armenia in his Nov. 30 press conference in the flight from Central African Republic. In 2014, he said: “I promised the three (Armenian) Patriarchs that I would go: the promise has been made.”
The Pope has kept strong ties with the Armenian community since his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. A large portion of Armenians immigrated to Argentina following the deportations and killings of World War I, and today the country has one of the largest populations of Armenians in the world.
Armenia is the first of three Caucasus nation's on Francis' itinerary this year, with a visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan slated for Sept. 30 — Oct. 2.