"Armenia Will Be a Distant Memory"

Once a Holocaust Victim, Now Besieged by Crime and Corruption

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YEREVAN, Armenia, SEPT. 20, 2001 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II will visit Armenia, a country which the 20th century seemed to rob of a future.

During his Sept. 25-27 trip to the world´s first Christian nation, the Pontiff will visit the Tzitzernagaberd memorial, erected in memory of the Armenian victims of persecutions, as well as the Khor Virab monastery. His most important visit will be to Etchmiadzin, a shrine regarded as the heart of Armenian Christianity.

A large cross stands in Yerevan´s Republic Square, where once stood an imposing statue of Lenin. The cross is surrounded by 1,700 candles, for next Sunday´s celebration of Armenia´s conversion to the Christian faith in 301.

Two days later, «Hromy Pap» — the Roman Pope — will arrive. The Armenians use the affectionate word «pap,» an ancient word meaning grandfather.

For Armenians, «Christianity is not a habit but the color of their skin. No one will be able to take it from us,» states a document from the year 451, a time when the country suffered for the faith.

Bordering with Islam, the country´s martyrdom reached its apex in 1915 with the extermination carried out by the Turks. This was the first holocaust of the 20th century, totaling 1.5 million dead. Many history books either ignore the event or dismiss it with a few words.

Armenia, a nation with a great past, does not seem to have a future. Her territory has been reduced to one fifth of its original size. She looks nostalgically at Mount Ararat, which rises to the west of Yerevan, but which today is in Turkey.

Armenians are scattered throughout the world. Their homeland was scourged by a devastating earthquake in 1988, and by the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s.

Today the country is governed by an ally of Vladimir Putin, financed by the West, and subjected to an embargo imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan, neighboring Muslim states. A mafia and corruption devour Armenia from within.

This is the Armenia that will celebrate a decade of independence on Friday, although it has very little to celebrate.

What is life like in Yerevan? Anahid, a student, is quick to reply: «To survive is already a great feat.» She loses friends every day, who go abroad in search of a better future. A constant emigration depopulates the country.

Officially, Armenia has 3.5 million inhabitants, but no one knows the exact figure.

«The most prudent estimates say that 800,000 people have left, but it is probably more than a million, virtually one out of every three citizens, explained Lyudmila Harutyunan, a professor of sociology at Yerevan University.

«Within a few decades, Armenia will be a distant memory, like the Assyrian civilization,» elderly writer and film director Aghasi Aivasyan said bitterly.

The new Armenian bourgeoisie predominates in the city. It is a Russian-speaking elite that benefits from all kinds of business, and includes 10% of the population, while 50% are below the poverty line, and the rest survive on $30 a month.

The large factories of the Soviet era have closed down. But light industry is slowly recovering and a few foreign investors are beginning to appear.

Armenia exists thanks to foreign aid: financing from international organizations, emigrants´ remittances, and dollars from the diaspora. There are some 3 million Armenians in the rest of the world, but none returned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

«They send us money but they are ashamed of us,» said Samuel Kazarian, a famous sculptor now working on Yerevan´s new cathedral.

According to the sculptor, it is important to send one´s own children to defend Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, which has been living with a fragile truce since 1994, waiting for a definition of its juridical status. Former President Ter-Petrosian was prepared to sign an agreement with the enemy but, precisely because of this, he was forced to resign.

There is a story going around Yerevan that former Soviet states are in the presence of the Eternal Father, waiting to learn when they will be normal countries. Between 50 and 100 years, is the reply. All begin to weep. Finally, it is the Armenians´ turn to ask the question. God does not reply, but simply begins to weep.

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