The centre of Yerevan (Armenia’s capital city) has never been so quiet. Streets are closed off around the temporary stage on the south side of Republic Square, where Pope Francis will this afternoon address dignitaries and whoever can find standing room within earshot of the loudspeakers.
Armenia was the first country in the world to become officially Christian, beating the Roman Empire by 79 years. As in Russia, religion has become an important signifier of nationality, and virtually every Armenian is a follower of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The Armenian Church belongs to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which diverged from Roman Catholicism after the Great Schism of 1054 – the eleventh century equivalent of Brexit. So a visit by the Pope is a big deal. It represents a handshake between two branches of the Christian faith – a demonstration of unity of purpose in a fragmented world.
But more than that, in April Pope Francis described the killing of over a million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as ‘genocide’, for which he was reprimanded by the Turkish Government which immediately recalled its envoy to the Vatican. His first act on landing in Yerevan yesterday was to visit the Genocide Memorial.
Armenia wants international recognition of its proud history, its victimhood and its legitimacy as a nation. Armenia also wants acceptance of the claims of the Armenian enclave Ngorno Karabakh to independence from Azerbaijan. Frankly, Armenians cannot understand how anyone could disagree with this interpretation of history and international law.
It is easy to understand why Armenians attach such importance to this visit by someone of Pope Francis’s political and moral standing, and his implicit endorsement of their world view.