Pope Francis has arrived in Armenia for a three-day visit meant to further strengthen the Vatican’s relations with the country and the state-backed Armenian Apostolic Church.
Francis was greeted at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport by President Serzh Sarkisian and Catholicos Garegin II, the head of the Armenian Church.
Francis and Garegin then headed to the nearby town of Echmiadzin, which has for centuries been home to the Armenian church headquarters. Armenia was the first nation that established Christianity as a state religion in 301.
The two attended a religious ceremony in the town’s cathedral.
John Paul II was the first pope to visit Armenia in 2001, and was the first pontiff to refer to the 1915 slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide, although he did so only in writing.
In April 2015, Francis held a mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica dedicated to the centenary of killings, calling them “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
Turkey, who rejects the term genocide, accused the pontiff of distorting history and recalled its ambassador to the Vatican in protest.
Francis will deliver a speech to President Serzh Sargsyan and Armenian officials at the presidential palace in the capital, Yerevan, later on June 24.
Over the following days, Francis will pray at Armenia's main memorial to the 1915 killings, release two doves of peace near Armenia's closed border with Turkey and pray for peace during an ecumenical prayer service with Garegin.
With additional reporting by AP, AFP, and dpa