On one hand a people filled with passion and enthusiasm over the Pope’s visit; on the other, a territory bathed in blood from conflicts as that of Nagorno-Karabakh, for decades the theater of a violent territorial conflict, and behind that, the bloody tragedy of the genocide that still causes profound wounds after more than a century.
There are so many historical, political and also spiritual implications that accompany Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia this weekend. It is a visit that the population awaits with fervor and that will seal the friendly relations between the Holy See and the Armenian Apostolic Church. A visit that it is hoped will bring peace and stability in the region at the political and diplomatic level. High and numerous are the population’s expectations, as Garen Nazarian, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, confirms to ZENIT in the exclusive interview that we translate below.
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ZENIT: What are the hopes for the Pope’s visit to Armenia?
Nazarian: Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia has a Pan-Christian meaning, in as much as it is a visit to the nation that first embraced Christianity as the State religion. The passion with which the Armenian people await the Pontiff’s visit is justified also by the fact that on April 12 of last year, on receiving the Catholicos in the Vatican, on the occasion of the Mass for the faithful of Armenian rite, in Saint Peter’s Basilica, for the centenary of the genocide, the Pope shared the sorrow of the Armenian nation and, in a certain sense, invited Turkey to take account of its past. This visit also enables our people in Armenia and those in the diaspora to extend their gratitude and appreciation to His Holiness for his position of principle on the question of the recognition of the Armenian genocide and the repairing of an historic justice. Noted is that during the events that marked the 91st anniversary of the Armenian genocide at Buenos Aires, the then Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio exhorted Turkey to recognize the genocide as “the gravest crime of Ottoman Turkey against the Armenian people and the whole of humanity.” Moreover, the Pontiff’s visit during the year in which the Catholic world celebrates the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is a solid message in itself, namely, that Mercy is guaranteed also by the demonstration of courage to face the past and not hide the truth behind a wall of silence.
ZENIT: Among the Pontiff’s stages there is also that of the Tzitzernakaberd Memorial Complex, an important moment during which the Pope will remember the victims of the Great Evil. What is expected from that meeting?
Nazarian: The Tzitsernakaberd Memorial Complex has become in time a site of pilgrimage, as well as an almost obligatory stage for Armenia’s important guests, given that it commemorates the one and a half million Armenians killed in the first genocide of the 20th century, by the hand of the Turkish government. Of course the visit of the head of the Catholic Church is of greatest importance for humanity, as recognition of the genocide. Moreover, the celebration, which will be held, dedicated to the memory of the victims will be an optimum instrument of prevention, condemning those horrendous crimes committed against humanity so that they are never repeated again.
ZENIT: In April of 2015, the Pope aroused the anger of Turkey by pronouncing the word “genocide” during the above mentioned Mass of the centenary in the Vatican. The script was repeated recently after the resolution approved by the Bundestag. In your opinion, why does the Turkish government persevere in this attitude?
Nazarian: The reaction of the Turkish leadership is the umpteenth proof that Turkey continues its policy of denial pursued at the State level, thus maintaining the weight of the responsibility for the brutal crime committed by the Authorities of the Ottoman Empire. With the decision to use the word “genocide” in the title and the text of the resolution, the Bundestag admits that Germany – at the time of World War I ally of the Ottomans – has a sense of guilt for not having done anything to stop the killings. But Turkey does not share this point of view and is not in agreement with the numerous countries and international organizations that have recognized the Armenian genocide. This says much about the values of the leadership of that country. The continuous process of recognition of the Armenian genocide by the International Community should be, instead, a strong sign to the Turkish authorities that the denial impedes the development of the values and the realities of the 21st century.
ZENIT: The historical truth of the genocide is emerging also thanks to the archives of the Holy See. What is the link between the Armenian government and the Vatican on this dark historical chapter?
Nazarian: The Vatican’s Secret Archives on the genocide were opened in 1991. However, there are not many historians who have had access to them. The content of the documents on the “greatest crime of World War I,” reveal, however, how Pope Benedict XV and the Vatican diplomacy tried to stop the deportations planned by the Armenians in the Syrian desert, to save the victims and to prevent the massacre of an entire nation. Benedict XV wrote a letter to the Sultan, asking for mercy for the innocent Armenians. The then Pontiff made reference also to the failure of any diplomatic intervention, mentioning “the suffering Armenian people, almost completely led to their extermination.” Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Republic of Armenia were established in 1992: beginning that year numerous visits were carried out by the President of Armenia and the Catholicos to the Vatican. Then, in 2001, John Paul II visited Armenia and during that trip he signed, together with His Holiness Karekin II, a Joint Declaration that reported a historic passage or: “The extermination of one million and a half Armenian Christians, during what was generally indicated as the first genocide of the 20th century, and the subsequent destruction of thousands under the previous totalitarian regime are tragedies that still live in the memory of today’s generations.” The Catholic Church recognizes the Armenian nation as the first Christian nation, and, today they share together the mutual will to surmount the challenges faced by Christians in the Middle East, respect for their human rights and the preservation of Christian values. Moreover, we cooperate actively in the international realm for the creation of peace and justice in the whole world.
ZENIT: A Holy See press release last February, about the book “The Papal Squad in the Dardanelles 1657,” was interpreted as a sign of a thaw between Vatican diplomacy and the Turkish government. In this press release, however, the term “genocide” was not used. Was it a motive of disappointment for you?
Nazarian: As I said, the Vatican’s position on the recognition of the Armenian genocide was clearly expressed in the Joint Declaration signed by John Paul II and Karekin II during the Pope’s visit to Armenia, as well as during Francis’ Mass in April 2015, in which it was affirmed in the heart of the Vatican that the extermination perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians was “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Turkish manipulations cannot change or influence the position on the historical truth and justice.
ZENIT: Shifting attention to the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, I would like to recall the words of the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev: “If Armenia continues the provocations, we will use all our capacity to recover our territory.” Therefore, are your provocations rendering the situation incandescent in the region?
Nazarian: In the first place, I would like to stress that it is well known who and what causes provocations, uses bellicose rhetoric at the Presidential level and spreads threats of a military solution to the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the fact that the negotiations are being carried out under the auspices of the Vice-Presidents of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is the only format at the international level to have a mandate on the resolution of the conflict, Azerbaijan falsifies the essence and the principal reasons of the conflict’s consequences, it attempts to involve other international organizations in the agreement and starts parallel processes that hamper the negotiation process.
Moreover, Azerbaijan is accusing Armenia, as well as the International Community, the OSCE Group represented by the United States, Russia and France, of the lack of progress in the negotiations. In face of these unfounded accusations, some questions could be asked, even if the answer is taken for granted. Who is rejecting the proposals of the Minsk Group at the base of the negotiations? Who is opposing the construction of measures of trust, beginning with the preparation of the societies for a peaceful solution and the creation of an investigation mechanism for violations of the “cease-fire”? Who is accusing the countries of the Vice-Presidents of Minsk’s OSCE, describing them as “provocateurs” and “Islamophobes”? Who is constantly trying to move the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations to other formats that do not have the international mandate to find a solution to the conflict and that have never first resolved a conflict? These questions have only one answer: Azerbaijan.
ZENIT: From many sides there has been talk of episodes of bloody violence …
Nazarian: In the first days of April of this year, Azerbaijan unleashed aggressive military actions against the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. Detachments of the army committed barbarous acts, such as the bombing of schools that killed and wounded innocent children, brutal tortures, mutilations and the killing of three elderly people, among whom was a 92-year-old woman. Then, in a style that reminds one of ISIS, they decapitated three soldiers prisoners of the Armed forces of Nagorno-Karabakh, even receiving an award at the Presidential level. Among other things, the President of Azerbaijan is presenting claims for Armenia, stating that the territory separates Turkey and Azerbaijan and that the connection of those territories is an historical injustice. From several points of view, Armenia has confirmed its commitment for a peaceful solution of the situation. Armenia’s position is in line with that of the OSCE mediators and of the International Community, with the certainty that there is no alternative to the problem other than a peaceful solution, and that the determination of the final juridical status of Nagorno-Karabakh is possible only through a juridically binding expression of the will of the people of Karabakh.
ZENIT: Given this difficult scenario, what will the Pope find in Armenia?
Nazarian: He will find a people awaiting him with enthusiasm and great aspirations. Our people believe that His Holiness Francis will give a message of peace and harmony, in order to reinforce the bond between the two Churches and, ultimately, develop Christian values. Armenia truly foresees hosting an historic visit, unique because of its breadth and because of the desire among the people. Moreover, we are more than certain that the Holy Father’s trip will seal the friendly relations that for centuries link Armenia and the Vatican. Let’s hope also that the visit can bring stability to the whole region.