“Historic” visit, failed intrigue and Ave Maria

On September 25, 2001, Pope John Paul II, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, paid a two-day visit to Armenia on the occasion of the celebrations dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in Armenia.

Convergence and protests

Earlier the visit of the head of the Roman Catholic Church had been planned for the summer of 1999 at the invitation of the late Catholicos Karekin I.

The Pontiff’s visit though had been cancelled due to the incurable illness of the Armenian Patriarch. Karekin I was the first who tried to normalize relations between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Vatican. This attempt, though, was perceived ambiguously.

The visit of Karekin I to Vatican in December 1996 caused a real split in the ranks of the hierarchs of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In Vatican, Karekin I and John Paul II signed a joint statement and acknowledged that the very fact of it was a significant progress in ecumenical relations and would serve as a beginning of a dialogue aimed at alleviation of centuries of controversy. The church leaders said they were pleased that “many misunderstandings and disputes inherited from the past are gradually dissipating.”



“Before God, we express sorrow for the controversies and dissensions, and we are determined to remove from the memory of our churches the bitterness, mutual recriminations and even hatred which have sometimes manifested themselves in the past and may even today cast a shadow over the fraternal and Christian relations between the faithful of both churches,” the joint statement read.

Bishop Pargev Martirosyan, the head of the Artsakh Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, addressed an open letter to the Catholicos, in which, in particular, he wrote:



In 1997, the heads of the Moscow, Uruguay and Artsakh dioceses of the Armenian Apostolic Church conveyed a letter to the Catholicos signed by a large group of high-ranking clergy, expressing concern about the statement signed with the Pope. The hierarchs asked the Catholicos not to make adjustments to the foundations of the faith and not to address issues of this magnitude alone.

Karekin I, in particular, was accused of straying from theological positions of the Armenian Church by signing a joint statement with the Pope.



Recognition of Genocide

After the death of Karekin I, the Vatican declared, “The Pope’s ally in the East passed away.”

However, further developments showed that Catholicos Karekin II did not intend to break relations with John Paul II. Being in Vatican on a visit, the head of the Armenian Church officially invited the Pope to visit Armenia in November 2000. In a joint communiqué signed during the visit, the heads of the two churches expressed satisfaction over the “development and strengthening of relations between the Vatican and Holy Etchmiadzin during the recent years.”



The reputation of the Pope sharply increased in Armenia after he recognized the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

“The 20th century was marked by extreme violence. The Armenian Genocide, which began the century, was a prologue to horrors that would follow,” said the joint communique signed by John Paul II and Karekin II in November 2000, raising strong wave of dissatisfaction in Turkey.

The intrigue failed

In March 2000, the Vatican representatives did not rule out that a meeting between the heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches could take place in Armenia. In an interview with Catholic World News they had noted that both sides viewed Armenia as a kind of “neutral” territory. Besides, the Vatican representatives were saying that Karekin II, the head of the Armenian Church, had good relations with the heads of both churches, and “he would be a perfect mediator in this meeting.” The press service of the Holy Etchmiadzin though described the Catholic World News’ report “untrue,” saying that such initiatives had not been discussed with the leadership of the Armenian Church.

Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow and All Russia did visit Armenia, but three days before the visit of John Paul II. He arrived in Yerevan on September 22, 2001 and on the next day took part in the consecration of the Gregory the Illuminator Church in Yerevan, after which he returned to Moscow.

“God bless Armenia”

On September 25, 2001, President of Armenia Robert Kocharian and Catholicos Karekin II welcomed John Paul II at Zvartnots Airport. Stepping off the plane, the Pontiff kissed the tray with Armenian soil.



John Paul II said that he had been looking forward to his visit to Armenia “for a very long time.”

The first thing John Paul II said in his welcoming remarks was “God Bless Armenia,” in Armenian. He stressed that he was addressing not only Armenians living in Armenia, but also “millions of Armenians around the world who remain faithful to their traditions and national identity.”



John Paul II said that the 20th century brought much suffering to the Armenian people and advocated peace in the region, which he said was possible only if nations respect each other.



The Pontiff said that joining the Council of Europe was evidence of the “bold steps” of the Armenian leadership aimed to strengthen democratic traditions necessary for the realization of fundamental human rights and freedoms.


The culmination of the visit was the performance of Ave Maria by the world famous French singer of Armenian descent, Charles Aznavour, at the Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide in the presence of John Paul II.

The Pontiff said at a meeting with Karekin II that on the eve of his visit to Armenia he had studied literature on the Armenian Genocide.

The irony of fate

Ironically, President of Armenia Robert Kocharian was the last foreign leader John Paul II met with.

During his meeting with Robert Kocharian in Vatican on January 28, 2005, John Paul II warmly recalled his pilgrimage to Armenia in September 2001 on the occasion of the celebrations dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in Armenia.




Two days later, on January 30, John Paul II felt the first symptoms of the flu. On February 2, the illness intensified: spasms made it difficult for the Pontiff to breathe and he was taken to the Gemelli hospital in Rome.



On April 3, 2005, Robert Kocharian sent a message of condolence to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State.

“The blessed memory of John Paul II will remain in our hearts forever. We will never forget the Pontiff’s blessing, his respect and warm attitude towards our people, which were best expressed during John Paul II’s historic visit to Armenia,” the message read.

Ara Tadevosyan


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