Pope Francis arrived in Armenia on Friday for a three-day visit that should further strengthen the Vatican’s relations with the country and the state-backed Armenian Apostolic Church.
Francis was greeted at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport by President Serzh Sarkisian and Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Church in a ceremony that featured a military honor guard and a children’s choir.
The choir sang Armenian religious hymns as the pontiff shook the hands of Armenian government officials and church bishops lined up on the airport tarmac. The Armenian clergymen kissed his right hand.
Francis and Garegin then headed to the nearby town of Echmiadzin, which has for centuries been home to the Armenian church headquarters. A separate welcoming ceremony was due take place the local Armenian cathedral adjacent to Garegin’s residence later in the afternoon.
The Pope will meet with Sarkisian, celebrate a mass for Armenia’s Roman Catholic community and hold other religious ceremonies with Garegin II during the trip. He will also visit the Armenian genocide memorial in Yerevan.
The pontiff prayed for the success of his trip at Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major before flying to Yerevan in the morning. He left a bouquet of flowers in the colors of the Armenian national flag at the church’s altar after the prayer, reported Vatican Radio.
In a video address to Armenians circulated on Wednesday, Francis paid tribute to Armenia’s Christian heritage. “I come as a pilgrim … to draw on the ancient wisdom of your people and to steep myself the sources of your faith, which is steadfast as your famous crosses carved in stone,” he said.
The official logo of the three-day visit is designed to symbolize the Roman Catholic Church’s growing links with Armenia and its ancient church to which the vast majority of Armenians belong. It is a round seal painted yellow and purple: the official flag colors of the Vatican and the Armenian Church respectively. The logo also displays the emblems of the two churches.
Relations between the two churches have improved significantly in the last two decades. In 1996, Pope John Paul II and Armenian Catholicos Garegin I issued a joint declaration at the Vatican which essentially ended centuries-old theological disputes between the two Christian denominations.
Francis gave a further boost to those relations with an April 2015 mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica dedicated to the centenary of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey. He referred to the 1915 slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
Turkey accused the pontiff of distorting history and recalled its ambassador to the Vatican in protest. Armenia denounced the furious Turkish reaction.
The late John Paul II recognized the Armenian genocide in a joint declaration with Garegin that was adopted during his 2001 visit to Armenia. Francis is also due to sign a joint statement with Garegin.
Garegin and President Sarkisian invited Francis to visit Armenia when they separately travelled to the Vatican in 2014. Both men also attended his papal inauguration in 2013.