Pope Francis saluted Armenia for making Christianity an “essential part of its identity” as he prayed in the main Armenian cathedral at the start of a landmark visit to the country on Friday.
The pontiff addressed the top clergymen of the Armenian Apostolic Church and other dignitaries during a welcoming ceremony that took place in the ancient cathedral of Echmiazdin, a small town 20 kilometers south of Yerevan.
He stepped onto its altar together with Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the church, while an Armenian choir sang Christian hymns in their honor.
“I bow before the mercy of the Lord, who willed that Armenia should become, in the year 301, the first nation to accept Christianity as its religion, at a time when persecutions still raged throughout the Roman Empire,” Francis declared from the podium.
“For Armenia, faith in Christ has not been like a garment to be donned or doffed as circumstances or convenience dictate, but an essential part of its identity, a gift of immense significance, to be accepted with joy, preserved with great effort and strength, even at the cost of life itself,” he said.
“May the Lord bless you for this luminous testimony of faith,” he added, paying tribute to “martyrdom which has constantly accompanied the history of your people.”
The Pope also hailed an ongoing “sincere and fraternal dialogue” between the Roman Catholic and Armenian churches that has significantly improved their relations in the last few decades. He portrayed it as an example of Christian ecumenism that can prevent “exploitation and manipulation of faith.”
“The visit of Your Holiness is a renewed testament to the brotherly relationships and collaboration of our churches,” Garegin said in his speech at the ceremony.
Garegin praised Francis’s “particular kindness towards the Armenian Church and our people.” He specifically thanked the pontiff for an April 2015 Vatican mass dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
Garegin and other senior Armenian clergymen attended the mass during which Francis referred to the 1915 Armenian massacres as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” The pontiff is scheduled to visit Yerevan’s Tsitsernakabert memorial to the genocide victims on Saturday.
Gargin’s late predecessor, Garegin I, and Pope John Paul II laid the groundwork for the Armenian-Catholic rapprochement with a 1996 declaration that essentially put an end to centuries-old theological disputes between the two churches.
The Apostolic Church, to which the overwhelming majority of Armenians nominally belong, split from the world church after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. It has remained independent since then.