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Pope honors memory of murdered Armenians

June 25, 2016

On a visit to the Tzitzernakaberd museum, Pope Francis has honored the memory of more than a million Armenians killed a century ago. He then held a mass within sight of Mount Ararat.

Pope Francis attends genocide memorial service alongside Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan
Image: Reuters/D. Mdzinarishvili

Pope Francis has called on the world to remember and never diminish the honor of 1.5 million Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks a century ago.

On the second day of his Armenia trip, the pontiff traveled to the Tzitzernakaberd “Genocide Memorial and Museum” a towering granite needle flanked by an eternal flame on a hillside overlooking the capital, Yerevan.

The visibly moved pontiff stood in silent prayer, after presenting a wreath and a yellow rose at the monument's eternal flame.

"Here I pray with sorrow in my heart so that a tragedy like this never again occurs, so that humanity will never forget and will know how to defeat evil with good," wrote Pope Francis in the memorial's guest book.

He continued: "May God protect the memory of the Armenian people. Memory should never be watered-down or forgotten. Memory is the source of peace and the future."

After a prayer service with President Serzh Sargsyan and leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the pope planted a tree near the memorial and met with the relatives of Armenians who had escaped the killings and were given shelter in the Vatican by Pope Benedict XV during World War I.

Dark memories, strong words

In a closely watched speech, Pope Francis went off script on Friday while speaking before President Sargsyan, diplomats and members of the government. Using the politically-charged term "genocide" to describe the tragic events of 1915, he set the murders on par with the twentieth-century European atrocities of the Holocaust and Stalinism.

"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," Pope Francis said. He received a standing ovation for his words.

Vatican spokesman: ‘Relations of the Holy See with Turkey are good’

There has been no reaction as yet from the Turkish government, which refutes the use of the term and claims that the numbers of dead were overstated. It also notes that many people were killed on both sides of the bitter conflict that ensued as the Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I. Last year, Turkey withdrew its ambassador from the Vatican, protesting that Pope Francis was spreading lies by using the term.

As of 2016, the governments and parliaments of 29 countries, including Russia, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy and Canada, as well as 45 US states have recognized the events as a genocide. On June 2, Germany's Bundestag passed a resolution qualifying the Ottoman era Armenian killings as genocide.

Strength of faith through the ages

Following Saturday's memorial service, Pope Francis flew to the city of Gyumri, near the Turkish border in the country's northwest and within sight of Mount Ararat, where, according to the Bible, Noah landed his Ark after the Great Flood.

The ceremony, which was attended by several thousand faithful, was the only public mass of his trip, and the pope returned to the theme of memory. The area has long been a cradle of Christianity, and Pope Francis used the occasion to pay homage to the strength of faith in difficult times.

Armenia, the first nation to adapt Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD, has a special place in Christianity. The last Pope to visit the country was John Paul II in 2001, when he marked the 1,700th anniversary of the country's conversion.

js/jm (AFP, AP)