Pope Francis leaves Friday morning for a three-day trip to Armenia where he will visit a memorial for the victims of the Armenian Genocide and push for peace, symbolically releasing a dove near the Turkish border.
Given the Brexit vote, this trip may get less attention than some of his other trips but, as a good indication of the level of interest in Pope Francis, there are still over 70 journalists from all over the world traveling on the Papal plane. I will be on board as television producer with a full AP team – cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro, Vatican Correspondent Nicole Winfield and Andrew Medichini as photographer.
Armenia is a small country with a population of nearly 3 million people, only 10 percent of them are Catholics and 93 percent are “apostolic” (Oriental Orthodox) Christians. Armenia borders Turkey (the border remains closed), Georgia, Iran, and Azerbaijan, all predominantly Muslim countries with the exception of Georgia.
The 1915-1922 genocide of 1.5 Armenians by the Ottoman Turks will be an important element on this trip. Pope Francis will visit the genocide memorial called Tzitzernakaberd. There he will pray in honor of the victims of the genocide and meet descendants of some of the Armenian orphans who were taken in by Pope Benedict XV and given shelter at the pope’s summer residence Castel Gandolfo.
As usual, the use of the world “genocide” creates problems with the Turkish government who refuse to use that word for the mass killing of Armenians. But Pope Francis made clear his views on this a year ago in April 2015 when he repeatedly used the word “genocide” in a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to mark the 100th anniversary of the genocide. (See Blog Post: “The Weight of a Word”) Following that Mass, Turkey pulled out its Ambassador to the Vatican but he returned 10 months later.
Armenia is considered the first country to make Christianity its state religion back in 301 A.D. and has a rich biblical history. It is where Noah is said to have released the dove from his ark. The ark came to rest on the slopes of Mt. Ararat, visible in Armenia but actually in Turkey. Interestingly, Vatican documents provided for journalists on the trip noted that “Noah would have cultivated his vineyards on the slopes of the mountain (Ararat) and gotten drunk drinking the distilled spirits.”
I found the biblical verse they are referring to in the New American Standard Bible. Here it is:“Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.”
I don’t believe the Pope will be doing any such thing, but he will go visit the area on Sunday when he makes a trip to the monastery at Khor Virap, 30 kilometers south of the capital of Yerevan and at the foot of Mt. Ararat. According to legend, the pagan King Triridates III imprisoned the Christian Gregory in a pit where he was left for 12 years. He survived thanks to Christian women who brought him food. Eventually Gregory was let out and the king converted to Christianity and the whole country became Christian. Saint Gregory the Illuminator is the Patron Saint of Armenia.
The monastery is built on the site of the of the pit, which in Armenian means Khor Virap. From the windows of the monastery, Pope Francis, together with the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church known as Catholicos Karekin II, will release doves from a lookout point that faces Mt. Ararat and the Turkish border.
Armenia left the Soviet Union in 1990 and became an independent state. Turkey was one of the first nations to recognize the Armenian Republic, however, things soured when fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in a disputed area between the two countries known as Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994. The area is populated mostly by Armenians but became part of Azerbaijan following the break-up of the Soviet Union. As a result of the fighting between the Armenians and the Azeris, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993. Last April fighting broke out again and about 75 people were killed.
Originally the Pope planned to visit Armenia together with Georgia and Azerbaijan, but due to political, diplomatic and organizational reasons the trips had to be separated and the Pope now plans to visit Georgia and Azerbaijan in September.
The Pope is likely to talk about the fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region during the trip.
This is Pope Francis’ 14th trip as Pope. John Paul II visited Armenia in 2001.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.