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Catholicos Karekin II: “Pope Francis, a brave soldier of Christ, dedicated servant of the people”

Interview of His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, a few hours prior to Pope Francis’ arrival in Armenia. His friendship with Bergoglio, the concerns for the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, the gratitude of the Armenian people for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide celebrated in the Vatican. "Our people are a martyred people – he said – a nation which has seen pain and suffering, which has always responded to death with life, living with an immovable faith in God”

Not in the Nunciature, not in the Archbishopric: Pope Francis and his delegation will be guests in the residence of Etchmiadzin, seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church and will be welcomed by His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. A few hours ahead of the Pope’s arrival in Armenia, Catholicos Karekin II accepted to retrace with SIR the history of friendship that ties him to Bergoglio, since his years in Buenos Aires. In 2013 he was in Rome to take part in the pontifical election in St. Peter’s Square. It was a gesture of fraternity that the Pope returned two years later, in April 2015, when in St. Peter’s basilica, in the presence of Armenian president and of Catholicos, Bergoglio celebrated the centenary of the massacres perpetrated against the Armenian people. High anticipation for a visit charged with meaning. Armenia, first Christian Country, a population that bears the scars of a tragic genocide, a land afflicted by war that looks at Mount Ararat with the hope of peace for all.

Your Holiness, is it true that you acquaintance with Pope Francis dates back to when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires?

We had an opportunity to become acquainted with Pope Francis during Our first pontifical visit to Argentina in 2004, when he was still the Archbishop of Argentina; and again when We paid our second visit to Argentina in 2011. During Our visit We got to know the generous spirit of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio and enjoyed a fraternal and friendly relationship with him.

A brave soldier of Christ, dedicated servant of the people, pioneer of justice, defender of the rights of the poor and the deprived.

We knew Pope Francis as such during his years of ministry in Argentina. It was particularly delightful for Us to know that he had close ties and relations with the Armenian community in Argentina.

What do you consider the most relevant aspect of his action in the Church and in the world?

Pope Francis is one of the devoted and zealous servants of the Universal Church. In his person, the Catholic Church has a Pontiff who is full of grace, who through his preaching of love towards the word of God and mankind, speaks out against social and interpersonal injustice, warns about the secularization of societies and about the dangers and other challenges that threaten the institute of Christian families. We greatly appreciate the peace making activities of the Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Armenian Church is worried about the situation of Nagorno-Karabakh. What are your hopes and expectations for this region?

Nagorno Karabakh is the historic land of Artsakh, inhabited by our people for millenia who lived a thriving national, spiritual and cultural life. After the establishment of Soviet power in the Southern Caucasus, Nagorno Karabakh and Nakhijevan were annexed to Azerbaijan by the Soviet authorities, ignoring the fact that it was historic Armenian territory. Since then, Azerbaijani authorities embarked upon a policy of emptying Karabakh of Armenians, eradicating all traces of Armenian presence and assimilating Armenians. Armenian churches were shut down, Armenian schools were closed down, and only the candidates endorsed by Baku were appointed to leadership positions. In the case of Nakhijevan, that policy had success, but the people of Artsakh revolted in 1988 and started the Karabakh movement, and declared independence, standing up for their right to live free. From the very first days of the conflict, through the mediation of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, meetings were organized between the religious leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan that continue up to this day. Important affirmations have been stated in these meetings, pointing out that the conflict does not have any religious grounds and that the parties have been called upon to resolve the issue peacefully. It is most regretful that the recent military activities unleashed by Azerbaijan against Nagorno Karabakh in April of this year, testify to the desire of Azerbaijan to find a military solution to the problem. Following the militaristic statements by the Azerbaijani authorities, the religious leader of Azerbaijan, Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshükür Pashazade; has made inflammatory statements in the same vein, seeking to put the conflict into a religious context.

We are deeply concerned with the current situation.

While there is a ceasefire in place, young people defending the borders of their homeland, as well as the civilian population, die because of the provocative military actions and sniper fire, and many civilian settlements come under shelling and are being destroyed.

It is our desire to establish peace in the region as soon as possible so that we don’t have mourning mothers, grieving widows and orphaned children, so that everyone can live a safe, peaceful, and happy life.

It is our conviction that enduring peace can be established through justice, which is based on the right of self-determination of the people of Artsakh.

Last year Pope Francis made a significant statement on the Armenian genocide…

Our people gratefully recall the Holy Mass celebrated by His Holiness Pope Francis in the Vatican’s St. Peter Basilica on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, during which, following the example of the Pontiff of the Catholic Church Saint John Paul II, he again loudly proclaimed the Armenian Genocide as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, raising a call to remember it and to takes steps to heal the bloody wound. This step taken on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide was a message to the whole world, which a number of nations heard and subsequently recognized the Armenian Genocide.

We greatly value the support shown to our people and the Armenian Church by our beloved brother Pope Francis of Rome.

What is the lesson of this tragedy to contemporary societies, afflicted by terrorism and persecutions?

The Genocide committed by Ottoman Turkey against the Christian Armenian people at the beginning of the 20th century is one of the greatest tragedies in modern human history.

Millions of the children of our nation were subjected to planned exile and massacre, thousands of monasteries and churches were destroyed, innumerable cultural treasures were annihilated.

Many were forced to convert, whose descendents now live in Turkey, even a century later fearing to reveal their ethnic identity or to speak of it. Despite all this, our people, faithful to our forbears’ faith and national traditions, witnessed to their faith in Christ by martyrdom. After 100 years the Armenian Church canonized the martyrs who died for faith and the homeland. Sadly, the world remained silent while this tragedy was taking place, thus giving occasion to new crimes. Decades later Adolf Hitler, justifying his brutalities, said, “Who now remembers the genocide of the Armenians?” We are convinced that the international community must not hesitate to declare clear judgments, because

the best way to prevent similar crimes and violence is to condemn and stop them in a timely fashion.

Today it is possible to guarantee the peaceful and harmonious foundation of different nations, religions and cultures only by demonstrating good will and by uniting the efforts of all. This is all the more imperative today when we witness the painful conditions reigning in Iraq, Syria, and other countries of the Near East, because of which innocent people are dying and historical and cultural treasures are being destroyed.

On many occasions Pope Francis mentioned the “ecumenism of blood.” What do you think about it?

Peace and reconciliation are divine graces, towards which every man and nation must aspire. The Church is called to share Christ’s message of peace with the world, to guide mankind to love and reconciliation, to define life by good fruits and to always aspire towards godliness.

Our people are a martyred people, a nation which has seen pain and suffering, which has always responded to death with life, living with an immovable faith in God,

hope of resurrection and an unbroken faith, and at times of necessity witnessing to their faith also with martyrdom, by which they also confirmed their right to live. We perceive within this context the entire content and relevance of Pope Francis’ expression, “Ecumenism of blood.”

We lift up our prayer to God for our sisters and brothers in the faith, for all people who suffer and are in pain, that under the shadow of God Almighty nations and peoples may live in peace, firm upon their spiritual-moral values.

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