Pope denounces 'genocide' in Armenia
Pope Francis has denounced the "genocide" of Armenians by Ottoman-era Turks a century ago as he arrived in Armenia to mark the centenary of the massacre.
In the most carefully watched speech of his visit, Francis ad-libbed the key word "genocide" to his prepared text that had conspicuously left it out.
And rather than merely repeat what he had said last year - that the slaughter was "considered the first genocide of the 20th century", Francis declared it genocide flat out on the first day of his three-day visit to the country.
"Sadly 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 darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples," he said.
In the run-up to the visit, the Vatican had backed off using the term "genocide", mindful of Turkish opposition to the political and financial implications of the word given Armenian claims for reparations.
But Francis, never one to shy from speaking his mind, added the word in at the last minute in a speech at the presidential palace to President Serzh Sargsyan, Armenian political and religious leaders and the diplomatic corps.
They gave him a standing ovation.
Many historians consider the massacres of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians genocide. Turkey rejects the term and says the death figure is inflated and that people died on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed amid the First World War.
In a largely Orthodox land where Catholics are a minority, Armenians have been genuinely honoured to welcome a pope who has long championed the Armenian cause from his time as an archbishop in Argentina and now as leader of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church. His 2015 declaration that the massacres were "genocide" sealed their affection for him.
"I shook the pope's hand but didn't have the time to kiss it," 42-year-old Yerevan resident Nazik Sargsyan said. "I'm sure God's blessing has come down on me with that handshake."
Small groups of residents lined his motorcade route, and a gaggle of schoolchildren wearing white T-shirts and yellow neckerchiefs - the colours of the Vatican flag - greeted him at the airport with a big banner written in Italian: "Armenia Welcomes Pope Francis".
In his initial remarks in the ornate Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin, Francis spoke of the "holy sign of martyrdom" of Armenians who died at the hands of Ottoman Turks starting in 1915.
With the Apostolic patriarch Karekin II by his side, Francis praised Armenia for becoming the first nation to declare Christianity the state religion in 301 and for keeping alive the "light of faith" even in its darkest times. He urged all Christians to unite to prevent religion from being exploited and manipulated today, an apparent reference to the current-day Islamic extremist attacks on Christians in the Middle East.
"It is vitally important that all those who declare their faith in God join forces to isolate those who use religion to promote war, oppression and violent persecution, exploiting and manipulating the holy name of God," he said.
The Vatican has long cheered the Armenian cause, holding up the poor nation of 3 million mostly Orthodox Christians as a bastion of faith and martyrdom in a largely Muslim region.
President Sargsyan, Karekin and a handful of other officials greeted Francis on the tarmac of the Yerevan airport in a low-key welcome ceremony. A girls' choir serenaded and the pope, patriarch and president then walked behind a goose-stepping military official along a red carpet into the airport's VIP lounge before heading to Echmiadzin, the seat of the Oriental Orthodox church where Francis will stay as a guest of Karekin.
Francis endeared himself to Armenians around the world last year when he celebrated a Mass marking the 100th anniversary of the slaughter and, from the altar of St Peter's Basilica, called it the "first genocide of the 20th century". Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador in protest and accused Francis of spreading lies.
"Blessed is the hour when the feet of Pope Francis touched our soil!" exclaimed local resident Simon Samsonya as Francis arrived.
"He won the love of the Armenian people with his message at the St Peter's Cathedral on the eve of the 100 years anniversary of the genocide."