YEREVAN—Pope Francis arrived at Zvartnots International Airport at 3 p.m. local time and was welcomed by President Serzh Sarkisian and the First Lady Rita Sarkisian, His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, a delegation representing the Great House of Cilicia, state officials and diplomats, bishops of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic Churches.
The Pope was greeted by “Little Singers of Armenia” children’s choir headed by Tigran Hekekyan. Children in Armenian traditional costumes served Armenian apricot and lavash, the Armenian bread included in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Pope Prays at Etchmiadzin
The pope’s motorcade then made the trip from Zvartnots to Etchmiadzin where he was greeted by throngs of local residents and faithful gathered for a special prayer service that officially kicked off his first visit to Armenia being called the “Visit to the First Christian State.”
At the altar at Etchimiadzin, Karekin II and the pope prayed after which, the Catholicos presented remarks highlighting Armenia’s ancient civilization and welcoming the pope to the “Biblical Land of Armenia.”
“We give thanks to God that today together with Your Holiness, the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church, with our faithful Armenians, including those who have come to Armenia on the occasion of Your visit, can pray and beseech the intercession of the canonized martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, whose bloodshed is a testimonial of victory not only for the Armenians but also for the Christian faith as a whole,” said Catholicos Karekin II in his remarks.
“After the destruction caused by the Armenian Genocide and the Godless years of the Soviet era, our church is living a new spiritual awakening by freely realizing the Christ-bestowed mission in the lives of our people in conditions of independent statehood in our Homeland. Our church is also engaging in a greater participation in the life of pan-Christian relations, strongly believing that at a time when the world is filled with deepening spiritual, political, economic, and humanitarian crisis, it is important more than ever for the Sister Churches to jointly pray and cooperate for the fruitfulness of the mission of Christ’s holy Church, for keeping and cherishing Christian ethical values in the world, for strengthening love towards mankind, through which true results of security and prosperity can be actualized,” added the Catholicos.
“We extend our prayer for the stability and prosperity of the Holy Church of Christ, for the spread of the spirit of love and favor of our Lord, and for increasing peace and life in solidarity in the world,” said Karekin II.
In his remarks, Pope Francis thanked God for “the light of faith kindled in your land, the faith that has given Armenia its particular identity and made it a herald of Christ among the nations.”
He said faith prompted Armenia to become the first nation to accept Christianity as its religion in the year 301, as persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian still raged throughout the Roman Empire.
“For Armenia, faith in Christ has not been like a garment to be donned or doffed as circumstances or convenience dictate, but 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,” said Pope Francis.
The Holy Father also thanked God for “the journey that the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church have undertaken through sincere and fraternal dialogue for the sake of coming to share fully in the Eucharistic banquet”.
Despite the advance in ecumenical union, Pope Francis noted the conflicts and division which mark our world and which require a solid, shared Christian witness.
“Tragically, our world is marked by divisions and conflicts, as well as by 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,” added the pope.
The Holy Father concluded his address asking God to bless all Armenians and preserve them in the faith received from their ancestors.
“May Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through the intercession of Mary Most Holy, Saint Gregory the Illuminator, ‘pillar of light for the Holy Church of the Armenians,’ and Saint Gregory of Narek, Doctor of the Church, bless all of you and the entire Armenian nation,” said the Pope.
Following prayers at Etchmiadzin, Pope Francis visited the Presidential Palace where he met with President Sarkisian.
“15 years ago, in 2001, the visit to Armenia of His Holiness Pope John Paul II was on the occasion of the 1700th anniversary of declaring Christianity as the state religion in our country. Today, this historic visit of Pope Francis signifies another key anniversary—the 25th anniversary of restoring independent Armenian statehood—a cherished celebration for every Armenian,” said Sarkisian in remarks during a reception for the pope.
“Throughout the voyage of our millennia-long history, the Armenian people have faced many hardships — from Genocide and foreign oppression to indifference of friends and denial. It faced but never lost the ability to believe in the ideals of humanity, tolerance, and solidarity. It never lost owing to the faith, the values, the peace-loving nature, and for the great humanists who extended a helping hand,” added Sarkisian.
“One cannot but believe in the Triumph of Justice when in 100 years, a timeframe that divides 1915 from 2015, the message of justice is being conveyed to the mankind from the heart of the Catholic World heralding that the first of the mass atrocities having affected the humanity, the Armenian Genocide, is a historical fact and an undeniable reality; when notwithstanding all circumstances falsification and denial start to shake in the face of historic justice. This was testified by the new wave of recognition of the Armenian genocide that followed the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis,” said Sarkisian.
“We don’t look for culprits. We don’t spread accusations. We simply want things to be called by their names, as it will allow two neighboring peoples to move towards genuine reconciliation and a shared prosperous future by recognizing the past and embracing forgiveness and a clean conscience,” exclaimed Sarkisian.
“The Armenian people’s decision to declare Christianity as a state religion in 301 was indeed a key event in world history. However, it went beyond defining the destiny of the Armenian people: the Christian Faith became the hallmark of the Armenian identity, predetermining our historical course and the values and culture that steered us to the 21st century, to the present, to this very day,” added Sarkisian.