President Serzh Sarkisian and Catholicos Garegin II on Thursday congratulated the new Pope Francis I on being elected as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, expressing hope that its links with Armenia will strengthen during his pontificate.
“We pray that the Lord will grant to Your Holiness a most fruitful pontificate blessed with many ever-lasting accomplishments for the glory of God and the splendor of the Church of Christ,” the supreme head of the state-backed Armenian Apostolic Church wrote to the man who was known until now as Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.
Garegin “fondly” recalled his meetings and joint prayers with Bergoglio during a 2004 visit to Argentina, saying that he got to know “a courageous, wise, and just Church Leader.” “ We are happy to avow Your sincere love and affection shown towards the Armenian people,” he said.
Garegin also said he hopes Francis will build on “significant progress” in relations between the Armenian and Catholic Churches. “It is our prayer that our cooperative efforts will continue to grow into the future and that the relations between our two sister Churches will blossom with new achievements for the sake of meeting the challenges facing humanity,” he wrote.
In a separate message, Sarkisian expressed confidence that Francis will spread his “merciful influence” all over the world. He said the Armenian government expects that its “fruitful cooperation” with the Vatican “will continue deepening and developing in the same spirit.”
Both Garegin and Sarkisian met with Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in the Vatican at various times. Benedict praised the Catholic Church’s “good relations” with Armenia when he spoke with President Serzh Sarkisian in December 2011.
Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, visited Armenia in 2001. He paid tribute to “the glorious history of Christianity” in a country that was the first to adopt it as a state religion in 301. He also signed a joint declaration with Garegin that referred to the World War One-ear mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
Unlike John Paul, Benedict refrained from using the word genocide with respect to the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians. Meeting with Garegin in in 2008, he only mentioned the “martyrdom” of the Armenian Church.
Francis, by contrast, reportedly described the 1915 massacres as genocide when he was Argetina’s top Catholic cleric. He also urged Turkey to do the same in 2006.
The former Archbishop Bergoglio has maintained warm relations with leaders of Argentina’s influential Armenian community.