Last weekend, Pope Francis made an apostolic journey to Armenia, a small, landlocked country of three million in the South Caucasus, bordering Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The official motto of his journey was “Visit to the First Christian Nation,” a reference to Armenia’s being the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in 301 A.D., a matter of great national pride. Only a small percentage of Armenians are Roman Catholics; more than 90% belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a member of the Oriental Orthodox communion. Yet Francis received an enthusiastic reception from the Armenian Church hierarchy, the government, and the everyday people who crowded his public events. It’s worth focusing on the reasons for the warm welcome, and on the diplomatic and ecumenical significance of his journey.
Armenia is in a rough neighborhood. To the east, the country is locked in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country, over Nagorno Karabakh, a region populated by Christian Armenians that seeks independence from Azerbaijan. A ceasefire has been in effect for about 20 years. In April, Azerbaijan renewed the conflict; Armenians successfully resisted the Azerbaijani attack, and the ceasefire was restored, but nerves remain on edge. To the west, Azerbaijan’s ally, Turkey, another Muslim-majority nation, has closed its border with Armenia, preventing needed economic development. To the north, relations with Georgia are peaceful but mixed; Georgia has its own breakaway regions and leans towards Azerbaijan in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The only strategic partner Armenia has in the region is its neighbor to the south, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which, somewhat surprisingly for outsiders, cooperates with Armenia on a number of issues. Armenia also has close relations with Russia. Indeed, the US typically thinks of Armenia as Russia’s proxy in the Caucasus. But the situation is more complicated than that. Russia plays both sides of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh—it sells weapons to Armenia and Azerbaijan–and Armenians increasingly distrust it. As I say, a rough neighborhood.
The pope’s visit was a welcome sign that the outside world, and especially the West, has not forgotten Armenia. Even more, in Armenia, Francis once again went out of his way to use the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I. Before the visit, the Vatican had suggested Francis Read more