Pope Francis’s Visit to Armenia: A Bridge Out of Isolation

by Yelena Ambartsumian

Ahead of Pope Francis’s recent visit to Armenia (June 24-26), there was much speculation as to whether he would again use the word “genocide” in reference to the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. The prepared remarks, released by the Vatican, appeared to omit that politically charged designation—instead opting for words such as “tragedy,” “slaughter,” and “immense suffering.” Nevertheless, once in Armenia, Pope Francis departed from the prepared text and said, “Sadly, that tragedy, that genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.”

Turkey responded by suggesting that Pope Francis and his Papacy possess “all the reflections and traces of [a] crusader mentality.” Last year, after Pope Francis had referred to the massacres as what is “widely considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century’” at a centennial commemoration in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Turkish President Recep Erdogan swiftly condemned the Pope and recalled Turkey’s ambassador to the Holy See for ten months.

Given this context, Pope Francis’s visit to Armenia came at a critical time.  Armenia is a landlocked country of about 3 million people. It is bordered by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Georgia. Two of its borders—those with Turkey and Azerbaijan—have been closed to Armenia since the majority-Armenian populated region of Nagorno Karabakh sought independence from Azerbaijan and reunification with Armenia in the early 1990’s. That conflict remains unresolved: in April of this year, Azerbaijan tried, unsuccessfully, to take back Nagorno Karabakh by force.

In many ways, Armenia’s isolation transcends its current physical boundaries. Even though the Armenians were the first people to accept Christianity as their official religion (301 AD), their church has been sacramentally independent of Roman and Eastern Christianity since its rejection of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Despite the pressures from its geographic and economic isolation, however, Armenia has demonstrated to the rest of the Christian world that it takes its moral responsibilities seriously. Indeed, Armenia has welcomed 20,000 refugees from Syria over the past few years.

The sites chosen during Pope Francis’s visit have both religious and political significance to the Armenian people. Most evident of this was Pope Francis’s trip to Khor Virap with Karekin II (Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians). Khor Virap (meaning “Deep Pit”) is the site of Armenia’s conversion to Christianity: it is where Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for thirteen years before miraculously healing King Tiridates of a mysterious illness and then baptizing the King. Khor Virap is also the vantage point of Armenia’s great territorial losses.  If one looks toward the west, one can see Mount Ararat—a symbol of Armenia—which is now located within the closed borders of modern-day Turkey. At Khor Virap, Pope Francis and Karekin II released white doves toward Turkey, as a gesture of peace. In fact, throughout his visit, Pope Francis repeatedly called on Armenia and Turkey to reconcile.

Pope Francis’s visit was also ecumenically important.  Reflecting on his time praying with Karekin II, Pope Francis said, “We have felt as one [the Church’s] beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one.”  Karekin II, addressing the faithful in Gyumri, Armenia, noted that “Gyumri and the church of the Holy Mother of God (Yotverk) became a tangible provider and preacher for ecumenism, years before the modern definition of ecumenism was established.”  Indeed, throughout the Soviet period, the parish was a refuge for Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians alike.

Cementing the ecumenical purpose of the trip, at a final Mass on June 26th, Pope Francis said, “May an ardent desire for unity rise up in our hearts, a unity that must not be the submission of one to the other, or assimilation, but rather the acceptance of all the gifts that God has given to each,” and then asked Karekin II to, “Bless me, bless me and the Catholic Church, and bless this path toward full unity.”

Pope Francis’s respect for and handling of the Armenian Church demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the Armenian people. After centuries of constant external pressure, the Armenian self-identity has developed in a way that looks largely inward.  Indeed, due to Armenia’s vacillating status as a regional  power, buffer state, and finally a subjugated and persecuted people, the Armenians have learned to rely on themselves and to distrust others.

The Armenian identity thus conceives of its people’s inherent uniqueness, based on a common ethnicity, language, religion, and historical experience. Armenia’s adoption of Christianity coupled with its independence from Byzantium—its powerful neighbor—helps to explain this paradoxical self-identity. As historian Nina Garsoian writes, “The conversion of Armenia to Christianity was probably the most crucial step in its history.  It turned Armenia sharply away from its Iranian past and stamped it for centuries with an intrinsic character as clear to the native population as to those outside its borders, who identified Armenia almost at once as the first state to adopt Christianity.” Moreover, the creation of the Armenian alphabet in the early 5th century helped to further homogenize and differentiate Armenian culture from its Christian neighbors, allowing its churches to conduct their Liturgies in Armenian, rather than in Greek or Syriac. Centuries later, the persecution and massacres of the Armenian people during the Ottoman Empire’s decline, undoubtedly, pushed the Armenian identity further inward. The vast territorial losses that accompanied these massacres left the surviving Armenian population clinging to the highlands of modern-day Armenia and, failed by the great powers, to each other.

Pope Francis appeared fully cognizant of this history and underscored these themes when he addressed the Armenian people, stating, “Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious. Your voices echo those of past sages and saints; your words evoke those who created your alphabet in order to proclaim God’s word; your songs blend the afflictions and the joys of your history. As you ponder these things, you can clearly recognize God’s presence.  He has not abandoned you.” Pope Francis also challenged the Armenian faithful to strive for unity, so that—with the assistance of God’s mercy—we might all overcome divisions.

Thus far, Pope Francis has shown the Armenians that he stands with them and is willing, despite political pressure, to challenge Turkey’s denialist narrative. While Armenia has been understandably reluctant to look outside of itself or beyond its diaspora, the country would be well served to continue to strengthen its ties with Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church. This visit was a promising start.

Yelena Ambartsumian is a graduate of the Fordham College at Lincoln Center Honors Program (2010) and Fordham Law School (2013).