Praying at the main cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church at the start of his three-day visit to the Caucasus nation, Pope Francis praised the “spirit of ecumenism,” and its role in promoting human dignity against “grave forms of material and spiritual poverty.”

“We offer to the world — which so urgently needs it — a convincing witness that Christ is alive and at work, capable of opening new paths of reconciliation among the nations, civilizations and religions,” the Pope said Friday. “We offer a credible witness that God is love and mercy.”

The Pope made these remarks during his visit to the St. Etchmiadzin cathedral at the invitation of Karekin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is believed to be the oldest cathedral in the world.

The Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenia's national church, is an Oriental Orthodox Church to which 93 percent of the population belongs.

“When our actions are prompted by the power of Christ’s love, understanding and reciprocal esteem grow,” Francis said, “a fruitful ecumenical journey becomes possible, and all people of goodwill, and society as a whole, are shown a concrete way to harmonize the conflicts that rend civil life and create divisions that prove hard to heal.”

The “spirit of ecumenism,” he explained, “prevents the exploitation and manipulation of faith.” This is because it “requires us to rediscover faith’s authentic roots, and to communicate, defend and spread truth with respect for the dignity of every human being and in ways that reveal the presence of the love and salvation we wish to spread.”

The visit to Saint Etchmiadzin cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is the first major stop on Pope Francis' June 24-26 visit to the Caucasus nation.

Following a greeting by Catholicos Karekin II, Pope Francis Francis expressed his gratitude for the invitation to visit Saint Etchmiadzin, along with the bishops and archbishops of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The Pope reflected on the nation's Christian legacy, saying he thanked God “for the light of faith kindled” in Armenia, which has given it a “particular identity and made it a herald of Christ among the nations.”

“Christ is your glory and your light. He is the sun who has illuminated and enlivened you, accompanied and sustained you, especially in times of trial.”

In 301 A.D., Armenia became the first nation to establish Christianity as its state religion, “at a time when persecutions still raged throughout the Roman Empire,” the pontiff recalled.

“For Armenia, faith in Christ has not been like a garment to be donned or doffed as circumstances or convenience dictate,” he said. Rather, it is “an essential part of its identity, a gift of immense significance, to be accepted with joy, preserved with great effort and strength, even at the cost of life itself.”

This “luminous testimony of faith,” the Pope said, “is a shining example of the great efficacy and fruitfulness of the baptism received over seventeen hundred years ago, together with the eloquent and holy sign of martyrdom, which has constantly accompanied the history of your people.”

Francis turned to the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church, and acknowledged the steps that have been taken over the years under the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Included among these are the consignment of the relic of Saint Gregory the Illuminator for the new Cathedral of Yerevan, and the joint declaration between St. John Paul II and Karekin II.

“May the Holy Spirit help us to attain the unity for which our Lord prayed, so that his disciples may be one and the world may believe,” he said.

The pontiff decried the divisions and conflicts in the world, along with “grave forms of material and spiritual poverty, including the exploitation of persons, not least children and the elderly.”

“It expects from Christians a witness of mutual esteem and fraternal cooperation capable of revealing to every conscience the power and truth of Christ’s resurrection,” he said.

Joint initiatives and cooperation in the context of a commitment to unity, therefore, serve the common good, the Pope said.

“All these are like a radiant light in a dark night and a summons to experience even our differences in an attitude of charity and mutual understanding.”

He closed his address by invoking the intercession of Mary, St. Gregory the Illuminator, and doctor of the Church St. Gregory of Narek to “bless all of you and the entire Armenian nation.”

The Francis' visit to Armenia comes a little over 100 years after the 1915 Armenian genocide, during which some 1.5 million Christians were killed by the Ottoman Empire, and millions more displaced.

He is also the second pontiff to visit the Caucasus nation, after St. John Paul II's in 2001.