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Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK
Analysis: Pope treads cautiously in Armenia
Pope John Paul II during a ceremony at the memorial
The Pope said the deaths appalled the Catholic church
By Caucasus specialist Felix Corley

Pope John Paul II's visit to a monument to the Armenians killed in the early years of the 20th century has provided what is likely to be the only controversial element of his pilgrimage to Armenia.

Present-day Turkey vigorously refutes Armenian claims that 1.5 million were massacred in what was then the Ottoman Empire - or that the deaths constituted deliberate genocide.

Even by visiting the Tsitsernakabert memorial on a hillside and laying a flower to honour the dead, the pope seems set to unleash a storm of protest in neighbouring Turkey.

Both Armenians and Turks were listening intently to hear whether the pope used the word "genocide" to describe the massacres.

When France's Senate passed a resolution commemorating the "genocide", the reaction from the Turkish government and people was swift and fierce.

Avoiding the word

The Pope bowed to sensitivities over the issue, coming as close as he could without uttering the highly-charged word.

Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin
Relations between the Armenian and Catholic churches have recently been warm
He spoke of the "agony" of the Armenians who had passed through the "great tribulation", adding that the Catholic Church was "appalled" by the deaths.

Significantly, he used the phrase "Metz Yeghern," or "big calamity", the term the Armenians have used which has the same resonance as "Shoah" does for Jews.

While the Pope and the head of the Armenian Church, Catholicos Karekin, spoke of the "Armenian genocide" in a communiqu issued last year when Hi Holiness Karekin visited the Vatican, the Pope is not otherwise known to have used the term.

He has instead spoken of the "tragedy" that befell the Armenians or - as he expressed it in his speech on Tuesday on arrival in Armenia - the "unspeakable terror and suffering" they endured.

But by adding that this formed part of the Church's "extraordinary witness of Christian life", the pope in effect subscribed to the Armenians' fusion of ethnicity and faith.

Unavoidable

The Pope could hardly have visited Armenia without paying homage to the dead.

Days earlier in Kazakhstan he had visited the memorial in Astana to those who suffered and died during Soviet era repression.

The Tsitsernakabert memorial is perhaps on a par with the Church's headquarters in Echmiadzin near Yerevan as a shrine of profound importance to the six million Armenians worldwide, who will appreciate the Pope's gesture.

Relations between the Armenian and Catholic churches have recently been warm, despite a wing of the Armenian church that rejects close ties with the Catholic church amid fears that the Armenian church is watering down its faith with what they regard as Catholic "heresy".

Both the Armenian church and the small Armenian Catholic community within Armenia - who retain an Armenian-style liturgy while acknowledging the supremacy of the Pope - share a common concern about the growth of Protestant and non-Christian faiths in Armenia over the past decade.

The Armenian church - one of the five Oriental churches - has kept aloof from other churches for 17 centuries.

While now embracing ecumenism, it will not give up this independence easily.

Felix Corley is editor of Keston news service

See also:

26 Sep 01 | Europe
Pope avoids Armenia controversy
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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