Pope Francis plans to pay his first-ever visit to Armenia this year, the Vatican reportedly confirmed on Friday.
The Reuters news agency quoted a Vatican spokesman as saying that the pontiff will most likely to travel to Armenia and spend several days there at the end of June. But the exact dates of the visit have not yet been set, he said.
The Armenian Apostolic Church announced last month that Francis’s trip is “expected in September” and that the Echmiadzin office of its supreme head, Catholicos Garegin II, is “in contact with the Vatican in connection with the visit’s organization.”
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.