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Photograph: EPA/TELENEWS

Rome (dpa) - Pope Francis referred Friday to the mass killings of Armenians during 1915-16 as "genocide," addressing President Serzh Sargsyan and other dignitaries at the start of an official trip to Armenia, Vatican Radio reports.

"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," Francis said.

The word "genocide" was absent from the prepared text that the Vatican had circulated in advance.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million people were killed by Turkish Ottoman troops during World War I, but Turkey argues that the number is inflated, that people were killed on both sides, and that the deaths do not constitute a genocide.

Any use of the term "genocide" usually triggers strong Turkish protest. When Francis used the term a year ago, during a special remembrance Mass in St Peter's Basilica, Ankara recalled its ambassador and accused the pope of speaking "nonsense."

On Saturday, Francis was scheduled to pay his respects to the massacre victims with a visit to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial complex, where he was to meet a dozen people whose relatives were given shelter by Pope Benedict XV after escaping the killings.

His trip schedule - his 14th international journey - also features prayers for peace on Yerevan's Republic Square on Saturday, as well as a Sunday pilgrimage to the Khor Virap monastery, which overlooks the biblical Mount Ararat across a closed border with Turkey.

In addition to Ankara, Armenia also has fraught relations with another neighbour, Azerbaijan. The two nations have rival claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Azeri territory where violence broke out in April, killing at least 120 people.

The pope's visit is also gesture of outreach towards Orthodox Christians, with Francis due to be accompanied throughout his stay by Catholicos Karenin II, the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which is part of the Oriental Orthodox family.

Armenia has a special place in Christianity because it was the first nation to adopt it as a state religion, in 301 AD. John Paul II was the last pope to set foot there in 2001, to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the country's conversion.

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