YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Pope Francis hailed Armenia’s steadfast Christian heritage on Friday as he arrived in the former Soviet republic for a three-day visit to commemorate the centenary of the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians that the pope himself has called a “genocide.”
In a largely Orthodox land where Catholics are a minority, Armenians seemed genuinely honored to welcome a pope who has long championed the Armenian cause from his time as an archbishop in Argentina and now as leader of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church.
Small groups of residents lined his motorcade route, and a gaggle of schoolchildren wearing white T-shirts and yellow neckerchiefs — the colors of the Vatican flag — greeted him at the airport with a big banner written in Italian: “Armenia Welcomes Pope Francis.”
“I shook the pope’s hand but didn’t have the time to kiss it,” 42-year-old Yerevan resident Nazik Sargsyan said. “I’m sure God’s blessing has come down on me with that handshake.”
In his initial remarks in the ornate Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin, Francis didn’t use the politically charged term “genocide” but instead spoke of the “holy sign of martyrdom” of Armenians who died at the hands of Ottoman Turks starting in 1915.