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 would avoid the word; his decision to go off-script was clearly his own. That he did so is a point of honor for Armenians, who believe, quite legitimately, that Western governments, including the US, often avoid the term simply to appease Turkey, which denies that a genocide occurred. Indeed, the last time Francis mentioned the genocide, in April 2015, Turkey withdrew its Vatican ambassador in protest for almost a year. This time, Turkey’s reaction was limited to its deputy foreign minister’s accusing Francis of having a “Crusader mentality” and a bias against Muslims, charges the Vatican quickly rejected.
Francis came to this troubled region as a peacemaker; he will visit both Georgia and Azerbaijan later this year. Indeed, at a prayer service in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, he prayed for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians and for an end to the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. And this is why his reference to the genocide is so important. It is simply impossible to understand the conflicts in the region, much less resolve them, without acknowledging the history. For Armenians, the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh is colored by memories of the genocide: they will not let such a thing happen again, or rely on outsiders to protect them. And it is impossible for Armenians to trust nations that put themselves forward as honest brokers but shy away from speaking the truth about what happened 100 years ago.
Francis’s visit also had an ecumenical component. Unlike some Orthodox Churches, the Armenian Apostolic Church has had a very cordial relationship with the Vatican over the past decades. Theological disputes that date back centuries won’t be resolved overnight, but significant progress has occurred, including a joint declaration on Christology, the original cause of the schism in the fifth century. The good relations result in part from the sad history of the genocide itself. Armenia epitomizes what Francis has called the “ecumenism of blood,” the shared suffering for the faith that brings Mideast Christians together. Crux’s John Allen explains:
Not only do Armenians of all stripes take pride in having been the first Christian state, but memories of the 1915 genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks are still seared into national consciousness – massacres in which Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and other Christians suffered together. As one Armenian cleric put it on Saturday, “When our people ask us what the difference is between the Apostolic and the Catholic Churches, to be honest with you, we often don’t know what to say.”
But much of the good will is owed to Francis himself. In his words and actions in Armenia, Francis repeatedly demonstrated a humility that greatly advanced the cause of Christian unity. Compared to the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church is small and beleaguered. It has only around eight million communicants worldwide. Yet Francis went out of his way to show it deference as a sister church, an ancient Christian communion worthy of respect. He stayed at the residence of the Armenian Church’s Catholicos, or Patriarch, Karekin II, and took part with him in several ceremonies. Again to quote Allen:
[O]n Saturday, Karekin joined Francis for an open-air Mass the pontiff celebrated in Gyumri’s Vartanants Square, and on Sunday Francis returned the favor by taking part in a Divine Liturgy staged in the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace of the Armenian church in Etchmiadzin.
In both cases, the two men processed in together, side-by-side, and Sunday’s Orthodox liturgy was a rare case of a public event at which a pope was present but not actually the main actor. At one point, a choir intoned prayers for both Karekin and Francis.
“We have met, we have embraced as brothers, we have prayed together and shared the gifts, hopes and concerns of the Church of Christ,” Francis said. “We have felt as one her beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one.” Karekin responded in kind: “During these days together with our spiritual brother, Pope Francis, with joint visits and prayers we reconfirmed that the Holy Church of Christ is one in the spreading of the gospel of Christ in the world, in taking care of creation, standing against common problems, and in the vital mission of the salvation of man who is the crown and glory of God’s creation.”
Francis’s visit culminated in a joint declaration of the two patriarchs, which covered topics such as the persecution of religious minorities, the Mideast refugee crisis, and the deleterious effects of secularism on the family (“The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Catholic Church share the same vision of the family, based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between man and woman.”). The document also called for “deeper and more decisive collaboration not only in the area of theology, but also in prayer and active cooperation on the level of the local communities, with a view to sharing full communion and concrete expressions of unity.” Powerful words. In the end, though, words will do less to advance Christian unity than the very warm memories Francis leaves behind.