YEREVAN, Armenia, SEPT. 25, 2001 (Zenit.org).- On the second leg of his Asian trip, John Paul II hailed the Armenian Church for its heroic fidelity through the centuries.
After spending three days in Kazakhstan, the Pontiff will end his 95th international apostolic trip in Armenia, a former Soviet republic with just over 3.3 million inhabitants.
In Armenia, the Holy Father will join in the celebrations for the 1,700 years since the proclamation of Christianity as the country´s official religion.
“Forever, the annals of the universal Church will say that the people of Armenia were the first, as a whole people, to embrace the grace and truth of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the Pontiff said during the welcome ceremony at Yerevan´s international airport, in the presence of Armenian President Robert Kotcharian and Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Karekin II.
“You zealously guard the memory of your many martyrs,” the Holy Father said. “Indeed, martyrdom has been the special mark of the Armenian Church and the Armenian people.”
The 20th century was one of the most tragic periods for Armenian Christianity, first with the 1915 Turkish-led genocide and then with the nation´s annexation by the Soviet Union in 1920.
Today, more than 90% of Armenians obey the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate, which separated from Rome after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. A key step to heal the division was taken in 1996 when the Pope and Patriarch Karekin I signed a joint declaration overcoming misunderstandings about the nature of Jesus.
The remaining Armenians here or in the diaspora form part of the Catholic community united to Rome. Their patriarch is Nerses Bedros XIX, resident in Bzummar, Lebanon.
After acknowledging the Armenian contribution to Christianity, John Paul II said that in celebrating 10 years of independence, the country faces the challenge to promote “the urgent search for peace at the regional level.”
Armenia is bordered on the north by Georgia, on the east and northeast by Azerbaijan, in the southeast by Iran, and in the west by Turkey.
“Peace will only be built on the solid foundations of mutual respect, justice in intercommunity relations, and magnanimity on the part of the strong,” the Bishop of Rome said.
In the early 1990s, Yerevan successfully supported the inhabitants of Armenian origin of the Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabak enclave. A fragile cease-fire halted the conflict in 1994.
Lastly, at this time of grave economic crisis, John Paul II appealed to the Armenian authorities “to be genuinely committed to the common good, in justice and solidarity, putting the progress of the people ahead of any partial interests” and “to implement the democratic reforms of the country´s institutions needed to guarantee respect for the human and civil rights of its citizens.”
For his part, President Kotcharian greeted the Pope, recalling the role he played in the transformation of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which he said opened “a new era of liberty for men and nations.”
Catholicos (as the Armenian patriarch is called) Karekin II recalled the help offered by John Paul II to Armenia following the tragic 1988 earthquake, and hoped that his “historic” visit will reinforce even more “the ties of love” and of “fraternal spirit” between Catholics and the faithful of the Armenian Church, “for the good of the universal Church of Christ.”
For the first time, the Pope will be a guest at the residence of a non-Catholic patriarch, the Apostolic See of Etchmiadzin, symbol of Armenian Christianity.
“Thank you for this sign of love, which moves me deeply and speaks of profound friendship and fraternal charity to the hearts of all Catholics,” the Pope said, when he addressed Patriarch Karekin I, after spending a few moments in prayer in the Apostolic Cathedral.
Shortly after leaving the historic temple, the Pontiff visited the tombs of Armenian Patriarchs Vasken I and Karekin I. The latter was a great friend of the Holy Father.
At 6 p.m. the Pope and Catholicos Karekin II embraced officially. They then had a private meeting. John Paul II will remain in Armenia until Thursday.