By Emil Danielyan
Armenia’s political and spiritual leaders have joined in the worldwide outpouring of sympathy for the deceased Pope John Paul II, hailing him as a champion of peace and a friend of the Armenian people.
Catholicos Garegin II presided on Sunday over a special service held in memory of the pontiff at the main cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Echmiadzin. “The death of His Holiness is a great loss for the entire Christian world,” he said. “He was a tireless preacher of peace and custodian of the Christian values.”
The head of the Armenian church also paid tribute to the pope’s legacy in a message of condolence to the Vatican. “Throughout his 26-year reign, His Holiness Pope John Paul II was a staunch defender of life and champion of justice,” he wrote. “His Holiness’s calls for peace and reconciliation in the world were anchored in his moral convictions and love for humanity.”
President Robert Kocharian also offered his condolences to the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. “The bright memory of His Holiness Pope John Paul II will always remain in our hearts,” he said. “We will never forget His Holiness’s blessing and great respect and warmth toward our people which was best manifested during his historic visit to Armenia as well as our last meeting that took place in the Vatican in January.”
Kocharian was among the last foreign dignitaries received by the ailing pope before the drastic deterioration of his condition. John Paul used the meeting to call for a “real and lasting peace” in Nagorno-Karabakh. He also praised Armenians as people “always linked to their culture and Christian traditions.”
John Paull was the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to set foot on Armenian soil and describe the 1915 slaughter of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide -- a fact emphasized by Garegin. The pontiff spoke of a “moment of grace and joy” as he arrived in Yerevan on September 25, 2001 on a three-day visit that coincided with official celebrations of Armenia’s adoption of Christianity as a state religion.
“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 Chris,” he declared. “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 visit to the genocide memorial in Yerevan marked the most emotional moment of the papal trip. Appealing to Good by its eternal fire, John Paul said: “Look upon the people of this land who put their trust in you so long ago, who have passed through the great tribulation and never failed in their faithfulness to you. Wipe away every tear from their eyes and grant that their in agony in the twentieth century will yield a harvest of life that endures for ever.”
The pope had termed the 1915 tragedy a genocide in a joint communiqué with Garegin issued in the Vatican in November 2000. Another joint statement signed by the two spiritual leaders in Yerevan likewise referred to “the extermination of 1.5 million Armenian Christians in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the 20th century.”
John Paul’s papacy saw a historic rapprochement between the Armenian and Catholic Churches that culminated in their 1996 joint declaration ending 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.
John Paul will also be remembered by Armenians for acknowledging their suffering since the break-up of the Soviet Union. “Dear Armenian Friends, hold on to hope,” he said at the farewell ceremony at Yerevan airport. “Remember that you have put your trust in Christ and said yes to him for ever.”
(AP-Photolur photo: Pope John Paull II gestures during his meeting with Armenia's President Robert Kocharian at the Vatican on January 28.)