Pope Francis hailed the Vatican’s “growing closeness” with the Armenian Apostolic Church and called for an eventual union between the two Christian denominations at the end of a three-day visit to Armenia on Sunday.
In a joint declaration, Francis and Catholicos Garegin II pledged to promote Christian unity around the world by further deepening relations between their ancient churches.
They also expressed concern at the “secularization” of contemporary societies, reaffirmed their opposition to same-sex marriage, condemned the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and urged world powers to end bloody conflicts in and outside the region.
“In this regard we also express our hope for a peaceful resolution of the issues surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh,” they said in the statement signed at Garegin’s headquarters in Echmiadzin, a small town near Yerevan.
After the signing ceremony, Francis and Garegin headed to the nearby historic monastery of Khor Virap where they prayed together and released two doves symbolizing peace towards Mount Ararat situated just a few kilometers away in Turkey.
Khor Virap was built at the site of a dungeon where Gregory the Illuminator, the first Armenian Catholicos, had been imprisoned before convincing King Tiridates III to adopt Christianity as Armenia’s state religion.
Francis repeatedly paid tribute to Armenia’s Christian heritage during the trip that set another milestone in a rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Armenian churches. The two churches essentially ended their long-standing theological differences with a joint statement issued in 1996. In 2001, John Paull II became the first Pope to have ever visited Armenia.
Successive Armenian governments have similarly sought closer ties with the Vatican. President Serzh Sarkisian attended Francis’s papal inauguration in 2013 and again visited the Vatican in 2014 and 2015.
Sarkisian, whose influential son-in-law is Armenia’s ambassador to the Holy See, attended most of Francis’s engagements in Armenia, including an ecumenical service held in Yerevan’s biggest square on Saturday.
Francis and Garegin praised “the continuing and growing closeness in faith and love” between their churches. “Today we are convinced of the crucial importance of furthering this relationship, engaging in deeper and more decisive collaboration not only in the area of theology, but also in prayer and active cooperation on the level of the local communities, with a view to sharing full communion and concrete expressions of unity,” they said in their declaration.
Francis made a case for a complete reunion when he attended and addressed an open-air Armenian Apostolic mass held by Garegin II in Echmiadzin on Sunday morning. He called for “a unity that must not be the submission of one to the other, or assimilation, but rather the acceptance of all the gifts that God has given to each.”
“We and our people will always pray for you, my beloved Brother, and your endeavors for the sake of the welfare and peaceful life of humankind,” Garegin said for his part.
The joint declaration by the two men stresses the importance of global Christian unity in the context of an “immense tragedy” suffered by ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. “The martyrs belong to all the Churches and their suffering is an ‘ecumenism of blood’ which transcends the historical divisions between Christians, calling us all to promote the visible unity of Christ’s disciples,” it says.
In a clear reference to Islamist extremism, the document condemns a “presentation of religion and religious values in a fundamentalist way.”
Francis and Garegin further deplored the declining role of religion in many Christian nations. “The secularization of large sectors of society, its alienation from the spiritual and divine, leads inevitably to a desacralized and materialistic vision of man and the human family,” they said. “In this respect we are concerned about the crisis of the family in many countries.”
The declaration emphasizes that both churches believe that marriage can only be an act of “faithful love between man and woman.”
Garegin’s sermon delivered at the Echmiadzin mass contained emphatic defense of this and other religious values. He went as far as to assert that attempts to “build a world without God” are at the root of political, socioeconomic and even environmental problems facing humanity.