AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Pope Francis is in Armenia, a Christian country with ancient roots in the faith. He's seeking to offer encouragement to the tiny nation squeezed between Turkey and Russia. He's already weighed in on the sensitive subject of the Ottoman Empire's massacres and the displacement of Armenians a century ago. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The three-day papal visit to Armenia is highlighting the strong ecumenical ties between the majority Orthodox and smaller Catholic Christian communities. The pope has also come to promote reconciliation in a tense region that straddles Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Massimo Faggioli, a professor of Catholic Church history, says that in visiting Armenia, Pope Francis is also sending a specific message to a geopolitcally-strategic region.
MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: Religion should not be part of a global, colonial enterprise.
POGGIOLI: Reached by Skype, Faggioli says the pope is very critical of the way both Russia and Turkey mix nationalism with their respective religions, the Orthodox Church and Islam.
FAGGIOLI: So Armenia is in the middle geographically and historically between Turkey and Russia. So going there Pope Francis is more or less poking a finger into the eye of the most important nationalist actors in the area.
POGGIOLI: Today he praised the Armenian people for their courageous testimony to their faith and who have suffered greatly, but who yet have shown themselves capable of constantly being reborn. During his visit, Francis will also meet Syrian refugees and is expected to speak out again on the modern-day slaughter of Christians and other minorities by Islamist extremists. The pope is also likely to reignite tensions with Turkey when he visits the memorial of the victims of the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
POGGIOLI: Commemorating the centenary of the mass killings last year in St. Peter's Basilica, Pope Francis used the G word.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) The first genocide of the 21st century was against you, the Armenian people.
POGGIOLI: Turkey was furious and recalled its ambassador to the Holy See for a full 10 months. Historians widely agree that some 1 and a half million Armenians were killed. But Turkey vehemently rejects the genocide label, claiming the number of dead was smaller and were victims of civil strife. In a possible signal of diplomatic compromise with Turkey, the prepared text of the pope's speech at the presidential palace used the Armenian term for the mass killings, Medz Yeghern, which means the great evil. But in his delivery, Francis added the politically-charged word genocide.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) That tragedy, that genocide was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial ideological or religious aims that darken the minds of the tormentors, even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.
POGGIOLI: Before he returns to Rome Sunday, Francis will visit a monastery in the foothills of Mount Ararat, which according to the Bible is where Noah's Ark came to rest. There near the closed border with Turkey, he'll release a flock of doves as a sign of peace and reconciliation in the region. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Yerevan.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.