The catastrophe of the Armenian genocide is a lesson for all humanity, the Pope said on the first day of his visit to Armenia.
After arriving at Yerevan’s Presidential Palace on Friday Pope Francis delivered remarks for Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan and other political and civil leaders. He recalled the solemnities in St. Peter’s Basilica last year attended by the president and leading Armenian churchmen including Catholicos Karekin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
“The occasion was the commemoration of the centenary of the Metz Yeghérn, the ‘Great Evil’ that struck your people and caused the death of a vast multitude of persons,” the Pope said June 24. “Sadly, that tragedy, that genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.”
“Having seen the pernicious effects to which hatred, prejudice and the untrammeled desire for dominion led in the last century, I express my lively hope that humanity will learn from those tragic experiences the need to act with responsibility and wisdom to avoid the danger of a return to such horrors.”
Pope Francis had previously spoken of the Armenian genocide during an April 12, 2015 Mass at the Vatican ahead of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.
Most scholars consider the mass killings of 1915-1916 to be a genocide in which the Ottoman Empire systematically exterminated its minority Armenian population, who were predominantly Christian. Roughly 1.5 million Armenians — men, women and children — lost their lives in ways ranging from meticulous torture to executions alongside mass graves.
Turkey, however, has repeatedly denied that the slaughter was a genocide, saying that the number of deaths was much smaller and came as a result of conflict surrounding World War I. After Pope Francis’ comments last year, Turkish leaders recalled their ambassador to the Holy See.
For Pope Francis, however, Armenia was the focus on Friday. The country prides itself on being the first nation to have adopted Christianity as a state religion, which it did in the year 301. About 93 percent of its population belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, an Oriental Orthodox Church.
Sargsyan acknowledged this history in his welcoming remarks, telling the Pope, “Welcome to the first Christian nation.”
In his remarks, Pope Francis said, “I pay homage to the Armenian people who, illuminated by the light of the Gospel, even at the most tragic moments of their history, have always found in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ the strength to rise again and take up their journey anew with dignity.”
Reflecting on the state of the world, he said some present-day Christians may suffer persecution “even more than the first martyrs.”
“At the same time, all too many conflicts in various parts of the world remain unresolved, causing grief, destruction and forced migrations of entire peoples,” he added.
He said global leaders should act “courageously and without delay” to end these sufferings in the quest for peace, the promotion of justice, and the defense and acceptance of victims of aggression and persecution.
The Pope encouraged an end to conflict, the fostering of peacemaking, and the creation of a “culture of trust” that would help achieve lasting agreements.
He pledged the Catholic Church’s cooperation with those who prize the future of civilization, the rights of the human person, and the prevalence of spiritual values.
Those who “befoul their meaning and beauty” will be exposed, he said. “In this regard, it is vitally important that all those who declare their faith in God join forces to isolate those who use religion to promote war, oppression and violent persecution, exploiting and manipulating the holy name of God.” Acknowledging the 25th anniversary of Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union, the Pope said Armenia has “suffered greatly” but has shown itself “capable of constantly being reborn.”
“The history of your country runs parallel to its Christian identity preserved over the centuries,” he continued. “That identity, far from impeding a healthy secularity of the state, instead requires and nourishes it, favoring the full participation of all in the life of society, freedom of religion and respect for minorities.”
He said the Armenian people have known persecution and have preserved not only the memory of past harms, but also “the spirit that has enabled them always to start over again.”
“I encourage you not to fail to make your own precious contribution to the international community,” the Pope said. “May God bless and protect Armenia, a land illumined by the faith, the courage of the martyrs and that hope which proves stronger than any suffering.”
The Pope will be in Armenia June 24-26. Relations with the Armenian Apostolic Church will be a main focus, but the Pope will also meet with leaders and laity of the Armenian Catholic Church.