Tens of thousands of people gathered in Yerevan’s central square on Saturday to welcome the visiting Pope Francis during a joint prayer service which he held there with Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Many of them waved Armenian and Vatican flags as the two spiritual leaders walked through the crowd to step onto an imposing altar where they prayed for peace and delivered speeches afterwards.
Francis praised growing ties between the Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches, expressing hope that they as well as other Christian denominations will eventually become united.
“Let us race towards our full communion,” he told the audience from the podium erected at Republic Square in the exact place where a statue of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, once stood.
The pontiff again stated that the “immense and senseless slaughter” of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, which has repeatedly termed genocide in his previous statements, must not be forgotten. But he urged the people of Armenia to also look to the future and seek “reconciliation” with Turkey.
“Even the greatest pain, transformed by the saving power of the cross, of which Armenians are heralds and witnesses, can become a seed of peace for the future,” he said. “Memory, infused with love, becomes capable of setting out on new and unexpected paths, where designs of hatred become projects of reconciliation, where hope arises for a better future for everyone.”
“We would all benefit from efforts to lay the foundations of a future that will resist being caught up in the illusory power of vengeance, a future of constant efforts to create the conditions for peace: dignified employment for all, care for those in greatest need, and the unending battle to eliminate corruption,” he added, drawing loud applause from the crowd.
The papal address contained many quotes from the works of two medieval Armenian theologians. Francis bestowed the title of “Doctor of the Universal Church” on one of them, Gregory of Narek (Grigor Narekatsi), during a 2015 Vatican mass dedicated to the centenary of the Armenian genocide.
Garegin, meanwhile, lambasted both Turkey and Azerbaijan in remarks reflecting the Armenian government’s views. In particular, he denounced Ankara’s continuing denial of the Armenian genocide and its “illegal blockade” of Armenia.
Garegin also blamed Azerbaijan for last April’s escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that threatened to degenerate into an all-out Armenian-Azerbaijani war.
Francis and Garegin ended the service by watering a vine planted in a wooden model of Noah's Ark which had landed, according to the Bible, on Mount Ararat located in modern-day Turkey, just a few kilometers from the Armenian border. The snow-capped mountain overlooks Yerevan and some other parts of Armenia. It is viewed by many Armenians as a key national symbol.
Francis received the ark’s model as a gift from a group of Armenian teenagers clad in national costume.