VATICAN CITY, FEB. 18, 2001 ( John Paul II said he would like to travel soon to Armenia, the world´s first Christian country. Sources in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, said the trip could take place in the second half of September.

The Pope expressed his intention as he presided over a three-hour Mass in St. Peter´s Basilica which helped mark the 1,700 years since Armenia adopted Christianity as the state religion.

The Pope offered the Armenian-rite Mass in homage to that land, sprinkled "by the blood of so many martyrs" who, through the centuries, and especially during the "dark years of atheism," paid for their fidelity to Christianity with exile and death.

Indeed, before his farewell to the Armenian pilgrims and the 20,000 faithful who gathered in St. Peter´s Square at the end of the Mass, the Holy Father said: "Martyrdom is a constant element in the history" of the Armenian people.

The liturgy was slow and solemn, including choirs and ancient chant. The altar of Confession was surrounded on this occasion by the "tent," as Eastern liturgy prescribes, which does not show the public the great eucharistic moments, in order to emphasize their greatness and mystery.

The liturgy was Eastern, but was celebrated by His Beatitude Nerses Bedros XIX, patriarch of Silesia of Armenian Catholics. Most of the 7 million Armenians, however, belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, whose head is Catholicos Karekin II.

Divided for more than 1,500 years, Catholics and Apostolic Armenians in 1996 put an end to their disputes over theological formulations about Christ. Language problems had separated them following the Council of Chalcedon in 451. In order to seal this step toward full unity between the two Churches, Karekin I and John Paul II signed a "Christological declaration" on that occasion.

Relations between the two Churches are now excellent, to the point that in 1999 John Paul II planned a visit to the capital Yerevan, and the holy city of Etchmiadzin (known as the Eastern Vatican because its urban configuration is similar to that of the pontifical state). The Holy Father had to postpone his visit because of the death of Armenian Patriarch Karekin I. Last November his successor Karekin II invited the Pope a second time to visit Armenia.

According to an ancient tradition, Christianity entered Armenia directly through the work of the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew. By the end of the third century, the faith became an integral part of life for the Armenian people. In 301, St. Gregory, known for this reason as the "Enlightened One" of the Armenian nation, converted the king and baptized him along with the whole royal court.

"Seventeen centuries ago, the word of Christ resounded in Armenia," the Pope said. "It was an alliance that did not need rethinking, despite the fact that fidelity cost blood, and exile was the price for refusing to renounce it."

John Paul II mentioned that he wrote and published an apostolic letter Saturday "to emphasize the value of this anniversary not only for you but for the whole Church."

In the letter, the Pope recalls the "unheard of sufferings" and "massacres" that Armenians endured at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, which culminated in the "tragic events" of 1915.

With the outbreak of World War I, the Turks, regarding the Armenians as a dangerous foreign element despite their pledges of loyalty, decided to deport the latter. This in turn led to a genocide against the Armenians. Today, Armenia is a nation of about 3.3 million people, nestled between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

In his homily, the Pope addressed the contemporary challenges Armenians face. "In experiencing increasingly the influence of secularization in the modern world, at times it is difficult to continue to maintain firmly this spiritual legacy, which has made of Armenia a ´Christian´ nation," the Holy Father said. "At times faith is considered only as a personal gift and quest, forgetting that it is the common property of a people."

The Pontiff explained the challenge now faced by Christianity with a question: "How is it possible for the social conquests of modernity not to lose the richness of the continuity of a people and their faith?"

The Armenian Catholic patriarch received from the Pope the gift of a relic of St. Gregory the Enlightened One, something the Pope had offered Karekin, saying: "Let us not divide the relics; rather, let us work and pray that those who receive them will unite."

The Holy Father ended his words expressing two profound hopes: to visit Armenia and to promote unity among Christians.

"I feel a great desire to go as a pilgrim of hope and unity to your homeland," John Paul said. "I would have liked to have made this visit in the past, even if it was only to be present at the last goodbye to the beloved brother, Catholicos Karekin I, but the Lord did not will it to be like that.

"Now I anxiously await the day in which, God willing, I will finally be able to kiss your beloved land, sprinkled with the blood of so many martyrs; visit monasteries where men and women were spiritually immolated to follow the Paschal Lamb; meet Armenians of today, who are determined to find dignity, stability and security of life again.

"Along with the brothers of the Apostolic Armenian Church and, in particular, the Catholicos and bishops, we will once again, Catholic and the Apostolic, proclaim together that Christ is the only Savior."