Whether atheist, Catholic or Armenian Apostolic, Armenians on June 24 heartily welcomed Pope Francis’s arrival as a sign that a time of healing for their small, conflict-scarred country is at hand.
“We are blessed. My heart is full. I cannot imagine how fortunate I am that my ears will listen to the words of that God-beloved person,” one middle-aged woman, invited to the pontiff’s outdoor June 25 mass in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, breathlessly told a friend at a suburban Yerevan bus stop.
The pope’s visit marks the first papal trip to Armenia since 2001, when Pope John Paul II came to mark the 1,700th anniversary of Armenia’s adoption of Christianity as a state religion. (The country no longer has an official state religion.)
Describing himself in a video message as “a pilgrim,” Pope Francis told his hosts that he wanted “to draw up on the ancient wisdom of your people and to drink from the wellspring of your faith, steadfast as your famous crosses sculpted in stone;” a reference to the khachkars, or carved memorial crosses.
The pope’s trip carries the tagline of “A visit to the first Christian country.” Though mostly Oriental Orthodox, rather than Catholic, for Armenians, those words reverberate.
In 2015, the pope recognized the World-War-I-era mass slaughter of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turkey as genocide – a validation that, arguably, explains why the public excitement over his presence seems more robust than for Pope John Paul II.
Turkey, outraged at Pope Francis’ statement, has largely ignored his visit to neighboring Armenia.
“For me he is a symbol of justice, of the purity of a child,” commented Yerevan linguist Mane Muradian, who planned to travel to the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin, about a half hour’s drive from the capital, to attend a welcoming ceremony for the pope. “I believe in his honesty with all my heart, which I cannot say about many of our priests. Pope Francis is unprecedented as a type [of person]. He is a holy figure for me.”
The Pope arrived in Armenia at the invitation of Karekin II, the Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. Along with the children of high-rank officials, Sargsyan and the patriarch were on hand early this afternoon to greet the pope at Yerevan’s airport with apricots, a symbolic Armenian food, and lavash, a traditional bread.
From Yerevan, where the Vatican’s purple banners floated festively in closed downtown streets, the group proceeded to Etchmiadzin. In the evening, Pope Francis will meet with President Sargsyan, then with government officials, community leaders and representatives of diplomatic missions.
On June 25, he will visit Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex and Museum in Yerevan. Afterwards he will travel to the northern city of Gyumri, a center for Armenian Catholics, where a mass will be held in the town’s main square, Vardanants.
Forty-year-old Gyumri resident Anna Mkrtchian said that the pope’s visit has boosted moods in Gyumri, which has little employment outside of that linked to Russia’s local 102nd military base. “Many are desperate, and others hope that with the pope’s prayers, something will change in our lives,” she shared.
On Sunday evening, an outdoor ecumenical service and “peace prayer” will also be held in Yerevan’s central Republic Square.
Though an atheist, like many Armenians born in Soviet times, 35-year-old mechanic Karen Azizian says he can only welcome the pope’s presence in Armenia.
Unlike many Armenian religious figures who do not stay in touch with the people, he claimed, Pope Francis shows everyone the importance of simple human communication, compassion and tolerance.
“Unfortunately, many priests in Armenia are far from the spiritual. Their names are involved in corruption, offshore investments,” he said of allegations of a senior church official’s involvement in an offshore scheme that also included former Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian. (The official, Ararat Diocesan Primate Navasard Kjoian, denied any wrongdoing.)
“This visit brings some kind of positive light, another opportunity for Armenia to appear in the center of attention,” he added.
Precisely for that reason, Armenia’s eastern neighbor, Azerbaijan, has its own expectations of Pope Francis. It has petitioned the 79-year-old pontiff to encourage Armenia to withdraw its troops from breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjoining regions, territory Azerbaijan claims as its own. The pope plans to visit Azerbaijan and Armenia’s northern neighbor Georgia, another predominantly Christian country, in the fall.
Within Armenia, though, thoughts for one pollster and market researcher, Aharon Adibekian, turn more to business. Adibekian, head of the Sociometer center, predicts that the visit could spur religious tourism to economically troubled Armenia, which now depends largely on Diaspora Armenians for such business.
“[L]ocal travel agencies and hotels must first of all reduce their prices,” Arka.am summarized him as advising.
Whether the pope has such business benefits in mind is unclear, but the Vatican’s interest in establishing a line of communication is plain.
“Now there is more friendship, more collaboration, a more open dialogue, and I am very optimistic about the future, from this point of view,” Archbishop Raphael Minassian, responsible for Eastern Europe, commented to the Catholic News Agency.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Armenia and editor of MediaLab.am.