YEREVAN — Pope Francis began a three-day visit to Armenia on Friday. Highlights of the papal trip will include a visit to Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide memorial, a meeting with members of the country’s small Roman Catholic community and the release of two doves in the direction of Mount Ararat from the Khor Virap sanctuary near the border with Turkey.

He was warmly welcomed by the President Serzh Sarkisian and the Catholicos of All Armenia Karekin II. Also present were the Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Armenia Grégoire Pierre XX and other religious and civil authorities.

From the airport the delegation headed for the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin for a prayer at the Mother Cathedral.

The pontiff addressed the top clergymen of the Armenian Apostolic Church and other dignitaries during a welcoming ceremony that took place in the ancient cathedral of Etchmiazdin .

He stepped onto its altar together with Catholicos Karekin II, while an Armenian choir sang Christian hymns in their honor.

“I bow before the mercy of the Lord, who willed that Armenia should become, in the year 301, the first nation to accept Christianity as its religion, at a time when persecutions still raged throughout the Roman Empire,” Francis declared from the podium.

“For Armenia, faith in Christ has not been like a garment to be donned or doffed as circumstances or convenience dictate, but an essential part of its identity, a gift of immense significance, to be accepted with joy, preserved with great effort and strength, even at the cost of life itself,” he said.

“May the Lord bless you for this luminous testimony of faith,” he added, paying tribute to “martyrdom which has constantly accompanied the history of your people.”

The Pope also hailed an ongoing “sincere and fraternal dialogue” between the Roman Catholic and Armenian churches that has significantly improved their relations in the last few decades. He portrayed it as an example of Christian ecumenism that can prevent “exploitation and manipulation of faith.”

Pope Francis is the second pope to visit Armenia since it re-emerged as an independent state from the ashes of the Soviet Union. John Paul II visited in 2001 to attend celebrations marking 1,700 years of the adoption of Christianity in Armenia, which was the first country to have the faith as its state religion.

Pope John Paul was also the first pope to recognize the slaughter of Armenians as genocide, although he did so only in writing.

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