Pope Francis embraces Catholicos Karekin II of Etchmiadzin, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, during an April 12 Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. CNS photo/Courtesy of Tony Gentile, Reuters

Pope’s visit to Armenian genocide memorial may strain tensions with Turkey

By  Rosie Scammell, Religion News Service
  • May 15, 2016

VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis will visit the Armenian Genocide memorial complex during a three-day visit to the country in June, a move that may strain the Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Turkey.

The pope will travel to the Tsitsernakaberd site in southern Armenia on June 25, spending an hour at the memorial, the Vatican announced on Friday (May 13). The complex commemorates up to 1.5 million Armenians killed between 1915 and 1923 under the Ottoman Empire.

Francis’ trip to the site carries huge significance, following the pontiff’s description of the killings as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”

The pope’s use of the term genocide, during an Armenian rite Mass at the Vatican last year, angered Turkey, which disputes the death toll and argues the killings 100 years ago did not amount to genocide.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, at the time said the pope’s comments were unacceptable.

“Religious offices are not places to incite hatred and revenge with baseless accusations,” said Cavusoglu. He also recalled Turkey’s ambassador to the Holy See.

Francis’ visit to Tsitsernakaberd could further dent diplomatic relations between Ankara and the Holy See and is expected to be a focal point of the pope’s Armenia tour.

Armenia has a population of 3 million, although an estimated 8-10 million people of Armenian descent live outside the country. 

An estimated 93 percent of the population affiliate with the Armenian Apostolic tradition, the country’s national church, while just under 14,000 are Catholic, according to Armenia’s 2011 census.

Arriving in the capital Yerevan on June 24, the pope’s first day will include a prayer at the Apostolic Cathedral at Etchmiadzin, the center of the Armenian Apostolic Church. As is customary on a papal trip, Francis will also meet various political and diplomatic figures while in the capital.

After the pope’s visit to Tsitsernakaberd he will be flown from Yerevan to Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, where he will hold an open-air Mass in Vartanants Square. Francis will also visit the city’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of the Seven Wounds and the Armenian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs in Gyumri.

Crowds are expected in the capital for the pope’s open-air prayer for peace during the evening of June 25. Francis’ final day in Armenia will include meetings with religious leaders and the signing of a joint declaration.

The pope’s participation in the Divine Liturgy in Yerevan’s Armenian Apostolic cathedral is also on the schedule, along with a visit to the Khor Virap monastery, close to the Turkish border.

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