By Emil Danielyan
Ending a three-day historic visit to Armenia, Pope John Paul II called Thursday for the peaceful resolution of ethnic conflicts in the South Caucasus and urged Armenians coping with enormous economic hardships not to lose faith in the future of their struggling country. He also thanked the Armenian people and their Apostolic Church for a “wonderful hospitality” shown towards the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
“I pray to the Lord that the leaders of Armenia and of the other peoples of the region will have the wisdom and perseverance to move forward courageously on the path of peace, for without peace there can be no genuine development and prosperity,” the Pope said in a speech at a farewell ceremony at the Yerevan airport.
“Many of your young people have left the land of their birth; there is not enough work and poverty persists; it is hard to keep striving for the common good,” he said, in a first-ever public reference to the impoverished country’s grave socioeconomic woes. “But, dear Armenian Friends, hold on to hope! Remember that you have put your trust in Christ and said yes to him for ever.”
The Pope, whose visit coincided with the official celebrations of 1700 years of Christianity in Armenia, again praised the nation for remaining faithful to the religion and not abandoning it “in dark times.” He went on to again deplore “terrible events of the beginning of the last century,” referring to the Armenian genocide of 1915.
The politically sensitive genocide subject was a major highlight of the papal trip. The Pope on Wednesday led an emotional prayer service at Yerevan’s Tsitsernakabert memorial, commemorating some 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Ottoman Turks. In a bid to avoid angering Turkey, John Paul used the Armenian phrase “mets yeghern,” tantamount to the word genocide, to condemn the mass killings and deportations.
But the word genocide was contained in a joint declaration which he signed with Catholicos Garegin II the next day. “The extermination of 1.5 million Armenian Christians, in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the 20th century, and the subsequent annihilation of thousands under the former totalitarian regime are tragedies that still live in the memory of the present-day generation," the statement said.
President Robert Kocharian on Thursday was understood to imply that the Armenia’s leadership is satisfied with the carefully chosen wording. In a farewell address to the 81-year-old pontiff at Zvartnots International Airport, Kocharian said: “Your deeds provide proof that we are not alone in our efforts to re-establish historical justice. This fact fills our hearts with gratitude.”
Garegin also thanked the Pope for recognizing the “mets yeghern” during an ecumenical service at a newly built Yerevan cathedral on Wednesday. The phrase was translated as “genocide” in the English-language version of his message.
The Pope’s last engagement before departure was a visit to the medieval Khor Virap monastery 40 kilometers west of Yerevan. The monastery is the site of a dungeon where Gregory the Illuminator, the first Armenian Catholicos, is said to have spent 13 years before converting the nation into the Christian faith in 301 A.D. A candle lit by the Pope at Khor Virap was taken aboard an Armenian Airlines plane that flew him back to the Vatican after a six-day gruelling tour of Kazakhstan and Armenia.