The spiritual leaders of Armenia’s Roman Catholic community hailed on Thursday Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to the country as a recognition of and strong support for its Christian heritage.
Francis is scheduled to arrive in Armenia on June 24 on a three-day trip that will underscore the Vatican’s growing links with the South Caucasus state and the Armenian Apostolic Church. He will visit the Armenian genocide memorial in Yerevan, attend an ecumenical service in the Armenian capital’s central square and hold an open-air mass in Gyumri.
Armenia is home to tens of thousands of Catholics following traditional Armenian religious rites. They are concentrated in the northwestern Shirak province, of which Gyumri is the capital. Thousands of other Armenian Catholics live in Georgia’s Javakheti province bordering Shirak.
Archbishop Rafael Minasian, the head of the Armenian Catholic Church in Armenia, Georgia and Eastern Europe, said his community is looking forward to the papal trip.
“We, the Armenian people, have proudly kept our Christian identify for many centuries,” he said in remarks posted on the church’s website. “Over the centuries this identity has resulted in millions of martyrs who sacrificed themselves for Christ.”
“As head of the Catholic Church, the Pope is obviously looking to appreciate our Christian testimony. We are honored to see such a tribute to our nation and our martyrs,” added Minasian.
In Minasian’s words, Armenia’s Catholic clergy also views the trip as an opportunity to personally thank Francis for publicly recognizing the 1915 Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
The pontiff described the slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century” during an April 2015 mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican in protest.
Father Hovsep Galstian, a spokesman for the Armenian Catholic congregation, expects the Pope to also bring a “message of peace to the region” following the recent escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He noted that Francis will visit Azerbaijan later this year.
Another Gyumri-based Catholic priest, Father Grigor Mkrtchian, stressed the importance of the Pope’s decision to visit Armenia’s second largest city and hold a mass there. He said the decision is related to not only Gyumri’s status as the center of Armenia’s Catholics but also the city’s grave socioeconomic problems.
“As a poor-friendly Pope, he decided to come here and stand with the people of this poor region,” Mkrtchian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). He expressed hope that the resulting international media spotlight will serve as a catalyst for economic betterment in the poverty-stricken city.
Mkrtchian also predicted that at least 20,000 people will attend the Papal mass in Gyumri’s central square slated for April 25. He said they will be joined by more than 3,000 Catholic pilgrims from abroad.