In silence and in prayer while a mournful hymn was sung, Pope Francis formally paid tribute to the estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1918.
Visiting the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial, a monument to the martyrs on Saturday, Pope Francis wrote in the guestbook, “May God preserve the memory of the Armenian people. Memories should not be watered down or forgotten; memory is a source of peace and of the future.”
Accompanied by the Armenian Orthodox patriarch, Catholicos Karekin II, and by bishops and clergy from both the Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches, Pope Francis blessed a wreath of yellow and white flowers placed before the towering stone shards that protect the eternal flame at Tsitsernakaberd.
On Friday, Pope Francis surprised Vatican commentators on the first day of his Arnenian trip when he used the “genocide” in a speech addressing the country’s President Serzh Sargsyan and the Apostolic Patriarch Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, along with other civic and religious leaders.
In a welcome speech, Francis thanked the Catholicos for his sincere invitation and said he saw this visit as an opportunity to reciprocate the Apostolic leader’s visit last year to the Vatican, which was “an occasion dedicated to the commemoration of the Armenian genocide centennial”. He then elaborated on the term by calling the tragedy “the first of among the inhumane catastrophes of last century”.
However, it was clear that Francis was carrying a message of peace. He emphasised that the value of remembering the past was to understand its lessons and avoid repeating mistakes. He said: “I wish with all my heart, that humanity would take a lesson from this tragic experience and act wisely in order to prevent the risk of such horrors. We should increase all our efforts to reach a dialogue in international debates, and genuinely strive for achieving peace.”
Francis then urged Christians of the world to unite and work together. He stressed the importance for everyone “who declares their faith in God” to combine efforts and isolate those who use religion for violent persecution and abuse the holy name of the Lord.
In a conference after the speech, Father Federico Lombardi, the head of the Holy See press office said “genocide” was a “little but significant” word. He also said that it was very significant that Francis elaborated on the meaning of genocide. When asked about the reluctance of the Vatican to use the term in the lead-up to the visit, Father Lombardi said: “It is clear that the Pope has chosen to add this word Genocide. He has all the freedom to do what he feels in this moment that is best”.
When asked about Turkey’s reaction, Father Lombardi said: “I cannot speak for Turkey, but I can say that the Pope speaks only and always for peace and dialogue with other cultures – there are many Armenians with good relations with Turkey, and many Turkish people with good relations with Armenia, many who desire peace and dialogue.”
The main message of the day was ecumenism though. After arriving in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, the Holy Father was greeted by Karekin who welcomed the Francis by calling the relationship between the two churches as one of “love and brotherhood and fruitful co-operation”.
Father Vahram Melikyan, director of information of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin said that when the two leaders embraced at the altar, you could see the “warmth and closeness” of the two churches, and the “system of values unity in brotherhood and prayers”.