Pope Francis is due to pay his first-ever visit to Armenia in September, the Armenian Apostolic Church announced late on Thursday.
The announcement came in an official statement on the ongoing session in Echmiadzin of the church’s decision-making Supreme Spiritual Council chaired by Catholicos Garegin II.
The statement said members of the council were informed that Francis’s trip is “expected in September” and that Garegin’s Echmiadzin-based office is “in contact with the Vatican in connection with the visit’s organization.”
Francis will likely travel to Armenia as part of a tour of the three South Caucasus states. Citing unnamed Vatican sources, the Russian TASS news agency reported earlier this month that the pontiff plans to visit Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in September.
Garegin and President Serzh Sarkisian personally invited the pontiff to visit their country in 2014, underlining increased links between the Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches. Both men attended his papal inauguration in 2013.
One of Francis’s predecessors, John Paul II, and the previous Armenia Church head, Garegin I, laid the groundwork for the rapprochement in 1996 with a joint declaration that put an end to centuries-old theological disputes between the two Christian denominations. John Paul went on to become in 2001 the first Catholic Church leader to set foot on Armenian soil. During that historic trip, he issued a joint declaration with Garegin I describing the 1915 Armenian massacres in Ottoman Turkey as genocide.
Francis has publicly reaffirmed the genocide recognition during his papacy, most recently at an April 2015 mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. Turkey reacted angrily to his reference to “the first genocide of the 20th century,” 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 Armenian Catholic Patriarch Gregory Peter XX at the Vatican’s St. Martha chapel in September. He compared their suffering with the ongoing persecution of ancient Christian communities of the Middle East.