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Pope Francis ends Armenia visit at closed border amid anger in Ankara


Pope Francis speaks at a meeting in the Republic Square in Yereven, Armenia, during his three-day visit (AP)

Pope Francis speaks at a meeting in the Republic Square in Yereven, Armenia, during his three-day visit (AP)

Pope Francis speaks at a meeting in the Republic Square in Yereven, Armenia, during his three-day visit (AP)

Pope Francis wrapped up his trip to Armenia on Sunday with an open-air liturgy and a visit to the Orthodox country's closed border with Turkey amid new tensions with Ankara over his recognition of the 1915 "genocide".

Turkey issued a harsh rebuttal late on Saturday to Francis's declaration that the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks a century ago was planned genocide. Turkish deputy prime minister Nurettin Canikli called the comments "greatly unfortunate" and said they bore the hallmarks of the "mentality of the Crusades".

Turkey rejects the term genocide, saying the 1.5 million deaths cited by historians is an inflated figure and that people died on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed amid the First World War. When Francis first used it last year, Turkey withdrew its ambassador for 10 months and accused the pope of spreading lies.

On Sunday, Francis turned his attention to more religious affairs, participating in an open-air liturgy at the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, the seat of the nation's Oriental Orthodox church. The landlocked nation of three million was the first in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301.

Amid haunting chants, Francis processed down the central walkway of the Etchmiadzin complex alongside the patriarch, Catholicos Karekin II, both walking under a gilded canopy as incense furled around them.

Security was as tight as it has been for Francis's visit, but Armenians nevertheless came out in droves under a strong sun for the service.

"I hope the Pope will bring peace and tranquility to Armenia," said Garun Kocharyan, a resident of Nakhichevan who attended the liturgy. "Peace for my country, it is the most important thing for me."

The Armenian Apostolic church and a few other Oriental Orthodox churches split from the Catholic church in a theological dispute over the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. The division arose from the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon, before the Great Schism that divided the rest of Orthodoxy from the Catholic Church.

While still divided over the primacy of the Pope, the two have friendly relations and Francis's visit has been a visible testimony to their close ties: He and the papal delegation stayed at the Etchmiadzin cathedral complex as guests of Karekin.

That said, there have been tensions: Francis and Karekin were supposed to have signed a joint declaration on their improved ties at the end of the visit, but it was scrapped at the last minute. Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi has said only that the time simply was not right to finalise the text.

The two men also showed clear political differences during a prayer meeting on Saturday night: While Francis spoke of the need for Armenians to move on to reconcile with Turkey, Karekin insisted in a fiery speech on the need for Turkey to acknowledge its past and for Armenians to find justice for past wrongs.

"Our people are grateful to your Holiness and to all who advocate for and protect justice, and anticipate that Turkey... will demonstrate enough bravery to face its history to end the illegal blockade of Armenia and to cease from supporting Azerbaijan's militaristic provocations targeted against the right of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to live in freedom and peace," Karekin said.

After the liturgy, Francis will head west towards Armenia's border with Turkey.

Turkey closed the frontier in support for its ally and ethnic kin, Azerbaijan, after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted into a full-scale war in 1992. The blockade has worsened Armenia's economic problems.

Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, but since a separatist war ended in 1994 it has been under the control of forces that claim to be local ethnic Armenians but that Azerbaijan claims include regular Armenian military.

An outbreak of fighting in April killed about 75 soldiers from both sides.

Francis has said he would love to see the border reopened, given his longstanding call for countries to build bridges, not walls, at their frontiers.

Francis is due to release a dove of peace near the border at the Khor Virap monastery. The monastery is one of the most sacred sites in Armenia and lies in the shadow of Mount Ararat where, according to legend, Noah landed his Ark after the great floods.

On Saturday, Francis paid his respects at Armenia's imposing genocide memorial and greeted descendants of survivors of the 1915 massacres.

"A blessing has come down on the land of Mt Ararat," said Andzhela Adzhemyan, a 35-year old refugee from Syria who was a guest at the memorial.

"He has given us the strength and confidence to keep our Christian faith no matter what."