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Peacemaking and Christian unity

opinion2Pope Francis made an apostolic journey to Armenia on 24-26 June 2016. The official motto of his journey was “Visit to the First Christian Nation,” a reference to Armenia’s being the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in 301 AD, a matter of great national pride. Only a small percentage of Armenians are Roman Catholics; more than 90 percent belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a member of the Oriental Orthodox communion. Yet Francis received an enthusiastic reception from the Armenian Church hierarchy, the government, and the everyday people who crowded his public events. It’s worth focusing on the reasons for the warm welcome, and on the diplomatic and ecumenical significance of his journey.

The pope’s visit was a welcome sign that the outside world, and especially the West, has not forgotten Armenia. Even more, in Armenia, Francis once again went out of his way to use the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I. Indeed, the last time Francis mentioned the genocide, in April 2015, Turkey withdrew its Vatican ambassador in protest for almost a year. Francis came to this troubled region as a peacemaker; at a prayer service in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, he prayed for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, and for an end to the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh.  And this is why his reference to the genocide is so important; it is not possible to understand the conflicts in the region without acknowledging its history.

Francis’s visit also had an ecumenical component. Unlike some Orthodox Churches, the Armenian Apostolic Church has had a very cordial relationship with the Vatican over the past decades. Theological disputes that date back centuries won’t be resolved overnight, but significant progress has occurred, including a joint declaration on Christology, the original cause of the schism in the fifth century. The good relations result in part from the sad history of the genocide itself.

But much of the goodwill is owed to Francis himself. In his words and actions in Armenia, Francis repeatedly demonstrated a humility that greatly advanced the cause of Christian unity. Compared to the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church is small and beleaguered. It has only around eight million communicants worldwide. Yet Francis went out of his way to show it deference as a sister church, an ancient Christian communion worthy of respect.

The visit culminated in a joint declaration of the two patriarchs, which also called for “deeper and more decisive collaboration not only in the area of theology, but also in prayer and active cooperation on the level of the local communities, with a view to sharing full communion and concrete expressions of unity.”

Powerful words. In the end, though, words will do much less to advance Christian unity than the very warm memories Francis leaves behind. – For full text

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