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By Emil Danielyan

Pope John Paul II spoke of a “moment of grace and joy” on Tuesday as he embarked on a long-awaited visit to Armenia, becoming the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to set foot on the first Christian state in the world. Using what Armenian political and religious leaders described as an “historic” occasion, he paid tribute to “the glorious history of Christianity” in the Caucasus country at the start of a three-day trip which is expected to cement the Vatican’s growing ties with the Armenian Apostolic Church.

“In greeting you, my esteem and friendship extend not only to the Armenians living here in your homeland, but also to the millions scattered throughout the world who remain faithful to their heritage and identity and today look to their land of origin with renewed pride and gladness,” the pontiff said on his arrival at the Yerevan airport.

“The whole Catholic Church shares your deep joy and the joy of all Armenians on the Seventeen Hundredth Anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity as the official religion of this cherished land.”

The Pope was greeted on the airport tarmac by President Robert Kocharian and Catholicos Garegin II. The three men then stepped onto a covered podium to address over a hundred government officials, high-ranking clerics and foreign diplomats attending the ceremony.

“This visit is of an historical nature in terms of expanding and deepening still further the relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Vatican,” Kocharian declared.

“We welcome the strengthening of relations between the Vatican and the Armenian Apostolic Church, enriched as they are by centuries of tradition between sister Churches,” he said, adding that the Pope’s presence adds a “special significance” to the ongoing celebrations of the Christian jubilee.

Garegin, for his part, noted that the two ancient churches are bound by a “fraternal spirit.” He said: “Let us pray together, Beloved Brother in Christ, that your pilgrimage may strengthen the relations of our Churches further and may the bonds of love make our cooperation fruitful.”

John Paul and Garegin met separately at the latter’s headquarters in Echmiadzin. The focal point of the first-ever papal trip to Armenia is the newly consecrated cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan where the two religious heads will hold an ecumenical service on Wednesday. The pontiff is also scheduled to celebrate a Catholic mass in Echmiadzin on Thursday for the tiny Armenian Catholic community.

For Armenians, most of whom belong to the Apostolic Church, the papal visit is a welcome recognition of their contribution to the Christian faith and an opportunity to attract international media spotlight to year-long events marking the 1700th anniversary.

The Pope paid special attention to the anniversary in his speech which he began and finished in Armenian. He said: “For ever, the annals of the universal Church will say that the people of Armenia were the first as a whole people to embrace the grace and truth for the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ…You zealously guard the memory of your many martyrs: indeed, martyrdom has been the special mark of the Armenian Church and the Armenian people.”

A rapprochement between the Armenian them began in December 1996 with the signing in the Vatican of a joint statement that put an end to an old theological dispute. The dispute had led the Armenian and other denominations of the so-called "oriental family" to split from the Universal Church in 451 A.D. -- long before the 11th century Great Schism that gave birth to Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. The Armenian church has since been fully independent and currently maintains good relations with all Christian denominations.

In a joint communiqué issued after their meeting in the Vatican last November, John Paul and Garegin vowed to further deepen the “fraternal relations.” The statement also referred to the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a “genocide,” in what amounted to the Vatican’s recognition of the tragedy.

The pontiff said on Tuesday that Armenians were subjected to “unspeakable terror and suffering” in the 20th century but stopped short of calling the slaughter of some 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians a genocide. He will lay on Wednesday a wreath at Yerevan’s Tsitsernakabert memorial to the victims of the mass killings.

The Pope flew in from Kazakhstan on the second leg of a trip which has been dominated by his concerns that the world may slide into war following the attacks in New York and Washington two weeks ago. In mostly Muslim Kazakhstan, he spoke of the great respect the Catholic Church had for Islam. In Armenia, he is expected to
urge reconciliation among Christian denominations.

The 81-year-old pontiff maintains a busy travel schedule despite declining health. He was able to walk off the plane in Yerevan unaided. But witnesses said he looked extremely tired after arriving at the main Armenian cathedral in Echmiadzin to lead a joint prayer service with Garegin. The Pope faltered and was unable to complete a speech there. A priest finished reading John Paul's prepared text, as the pope sat slumped on a throne on the cathedral's altar, according to the Associated Press. Reuters said the Pope later appeared better when he visited the tombs of Armenian church leaders and entered his residence on the complex to rest before his next engagement.
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