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Armenia: Pope Celebrates Anniversary On Historic Trip

Pope John Paul arrived today in Armenia to commemorate that country's adoption of Christianity 1,700 years ago. The pope's scheduled three-day visit follows his trip to Kazakhstan, which began on 22 September.

Yerevan, 25 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul spoke of a "moment of grace and joy" today as he began a long-awaited visit to Armenia, becoming the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to set foot in the first Christian state in the world.

Speaking on his arrival in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, the pope paid tribute to what he called "the glorious history of Christianity" in Armenia. He said his esteem extends not only to Armenians living in Armenia, but also to the millions scattered throughout the world who remain faithful to their heritage and identity and today look to their land of origin with -- as he put it -- "renewed pride and gladness."

He continued: "The whole Catholic Church shares your deep joy and the joy of all Armenians on the 1,700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity as the official religion of this cherished land."

President Robert Kocharian and the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, greeted the pope at the airport. The three men then stepped onto a covered podium to address government officials, high-ranking clerics, and foreign diplomats.

Kocharian: "This visit is of a historical nature in terms of expanding and deepening the relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Vatican."

Kocharian added that the pope's presence gives a "special significance" to the ongoing celebrations of 1,700 years of Christianity in Armenia.

Garegin said the two ancient churches are bound by what he called a "fraternal spirit." John Paul and Garegin then headed to the latter's headquarters in the town of Echmiadzin, 25 kilometers west of Yerevan, to hold a joint service.

The focal point of the papal trip to Armenia is the newly consecrated cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan, where the two religious leaders will hold an ecumenical service tomorrow. The pontiff is scheduled to celebrate a Catholic mass in Echmiadzin on 27 September for the tiny Armenian Catholic community.

For Armenians, most of whom belong to the Apostolic Church, the papal visit is a welcome recognition of their contribution to the Christian faith and an opportunity to attract the international media spotlight to the year-long events marking the 1,700th anniversary.

The pope made special mention of the anniversary in his speech, which he began and ended in the Armenian language. He said that it would always be known that the people of Armenia were the first as a whole people to -- as he put it -- "embrace the grace and truth for the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ."

A rapprochement between the two churches began in 1996 with the signing at the Vatican of a joint statement that put an end to an old theological dispute. The dispute had led the Armenian and other denominations of the so-called "oriental family" to split from the Universal Church in 451 A.D. -- long before the 11th century Great Schism that gave birth to Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. The Armenian church has since been fully independent and maintains good relations with all Christian denominations.

In a joint communique issued after their meeting in the Vatican last November, John Paul and Garegin vowed to further deepen "fraternal relations." The statement also referred to the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a "genocide" in what amounted to the Vatican's formal recognition of that tragedy.

The pontiff said today that Armenians were subjected to "unspeakable terror and suffering" in the 20th century. He will lay a wreath tomorrow at Yerevan's Tsitsernakabert genocide memorial.

The pope flew from Kazakhstan on the second leg of a week-long trip that has been dominated by security concerns following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington two weeks ago. In mostly Muslim Kazakhstan, the pope spoke of the respect the Catholic Church has for Islam.

In Armenia, he is expected to urge reconciliation among the Christian denominations.