Underscoring Armenia’s warm relationship with the Vatican, President Serzh Sarkisian attended on Thursday the inauguration of a newly constructed Catholic church in Gyumri which was led by a visiting Vatican cardinal.
The Church Of Holy Martyrs was consecrated by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches, five years after the start of its construction financed by Roman Catholic structures in Europe and the United States. The Lebanon-based Patriarch Gregory Peter XX, the head of the Armenian Catholic Church, also took part in the ceremony.
Armenia is home to some 20,000 Catholics following traditional Armenian religious rites. They are concentrated in the northwestern Shirak province, of which Gyumri is the capital. All Catholic churches in Gyumri were shut down shortly after Armenia was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922.
Thousands of other Armenian Catholics live in Georgia’s Javakheti province bordering Shirak.
“I’m a believer of the Armenian Apostolic Church but decided to come to the Catholic church. It doesn’t make any difference,” a Gyumri resident attending the consecration told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Senior clerics of the Apostolic Church, to which the vast majority of Armenians belong, were also present at the ceremony. They included Bishop Mikael Ajapahian, the head of its Shirak diocese.
Officials said that the Church of Holy Martyrs is dedicated to some 1.5 million Armenians who were massacred by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War.
Pope Francis referred to those massacres as “the first genocide of the 20th century” in April while holding a special mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s basilica on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. Turkey reacted angrily to that characterization, accusing the pontiff of distorting history and recalling its ambassador to the Vatican in protest.
Armenia rejected the Turkish criticism. Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian praised Francis for delivering the “important message of solidarity with and support to the Armenian people.”
Francis again paid tribute to Armenians massacred “just for being Christians” after holding a mass with Gregory Peter XX at the Vatican’s St. Martha chapel earlier this month. He compared their suffering with the ongoing persecution of ancient Christian communities of the Middle East.