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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 19:07 GMT 20:07 UK
Pope's speech raises health fears
Pope John Paul II receives a gift from Catholicos Karekin II
The Pope's message has been one of reconciliation
The Pope broke off in the middle of a speech during a visit to Armenia on Tuesday, raising renewed concerns about his health.

Speaking in a slurred voice, the 81-year-old Pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, only read the first two paragraphs of his prepared text during a visit to the seat of the Armenian Apostolic church.

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II looked frail and tired as he arrived in Armenia
He then handed over to one of his aides.

The pontiff is paying a two-day visit to the former Soviet republic - the world's oldest Christian state - which is celebrating 1,700 years of Christianity and also a decade of independence from Soviet rule.


A frail-looking John Paul was met by Armenian President Robert Kocharian and the leader of the Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, on his arrival from Kazakhstan.

But notably absent was the leader of the Russian Orthodox church, who was also in Armenia for the celebrations.

A BBC correspondent travelling with the Pope says he left town pointedly before the papal arrival.

The Pope's unprecedented visit to the Apostolic cathedral in Etchmiadzin was meant to be a symbolic gesture of reconciliation, some 1,500 years after Armenia's 6th Century split with the rest of the Christian community.

In his address, John Paul said: "For all Armenians, Etchmiadzin remains the pledge of perseverance in the faith, despite the suffering and bloodshed past and present."

Security concerns

The Pope's visit comes amid heightened tensions following the suicide attacks on New York and Washington.

A Vatican official said on Monday the Pope would understand if the United States resorted to force to defend its citizens from future attacks.

Armenian protester
Armenians say 1.5 million of their people were killed by Ottoman Turks

The BBC's Chloe Arnold in Yerevan says the Pope's visit is being seen as a step closer towards his dream of one day visiting Russia.

So far, however, the Russian patriarch has refused to let him, fearing it would cause a split in his own church.

On Wednesday, the Pope will commemorate the Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1920 by laying a wreath at Yerevan's "genocide memorial".

The visit is expected to anger Turkey, which claims 300,000 Armenians died in what it calls a revolt against the authorities, and Armenia's eastern neighbour, Azerbaijan.

Armenia puts the death toll at 1.5 million.

The BBC's David Willey
"He had to be helped to his feet at this morning's ceremony"
See also:

22 Sep 01 | Europe
Timeline: Armenia
24 Oct 00 | Europe
Armenia's economic problems
25 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Azerbaijan warns of fighting with Armenia
22 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Armenia
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Vatican
19 Apr 01 | South Asia
Kazakhstan ready to host Afghan talks
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