pope Francis, papa.jpg
Photograph: EPA/FILIPPO MONTEFORTE

Vatican City (dpa) - Armenia's painful past and present tensions with neighbours Azerbaijan and Turkey are expected to overshadow Pope Francis' June 24-26 trip to the small South Caucasus country, considered the world's oldest Christian nation.

Attention will focus on whether the pontiff will again refer to 1915-16 mass killing of Armenians at the hands of Turkish Ottoman troops as "genocide," a term that is strongly rejected by the Turkish government.

"Your history and the travails of your beloved people inspire admiration and pain in me," Francis said in a video message on Wednesday. "I wish to come to you as a servant of God and messenger of peace," he added.

The highlight of the pope's pilgrimage - his 14th international journey - is likely to be on Saturday, when he is scheduled to visit to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial complex, which honours the victims of the massacres.

Francis is to lay a wreath, recite prayers and plant a tree. He is also set to meet about a dozen people whose relatives were given shelter in the Vatican summer residence of Castel Gandolfo by Pope Benedict XV during World War I.

The Vatican said a member of the Armenian diaspora from Francis' native Argentina would follow him this weekend: journalist Evangelina Himitian, a personal friend whose grandparents escaped the massacres with the help of sympathetic Turkish peasants.

Presenting the papal trip, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi skirted over the "genocide" controversy.

In a Tuesday briefing, he used the Armenian term "Meds Yeghern," which translates as Great Crime, to evoke the "enormous tragedy," and said: "These are the words used by my Armenian brothers and I think they know very well what they refer to."

Francis was more direct last year.

As he led a remembrance mass in St Peter's Basilica for the 100th anniversary of the start of the massacres, he said they were "widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century." That triggered a diplomatic crisis with Ankara.

While Armenians say up to 1.5 million people were killed in massacres targeting Christian communities, Turkey maintains that the number is inflated, that people were killed on both sides and that the deaths do not actually constitute a genocide.

Turkey's sensitivities on the issue were rekindled this month after the German parliament passed a law recognizing the "genocide." President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Berlin had no right to comment on the issue, given its role in the Holocaust.

During his trip, Francis was also expected to call for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan where violence broke out again in April, killing at least 120 people.

It was the bloodiest fighting since a truce ended a six-year war between the former Soviet republics in 1994. Nagorno-Karabakh has a mostly Christian Armenian population but comprises about 4,500 square kilometers within predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan.

Francis, who is scheduled to visit Armenia's neighbours Azerbaijan and Georgia on September 30-October 2, would have liked to make a single Caucasus trip covering the three countries, but the plan rankled Yerevan's leaders.

In an outreach gesture towards Oriental Orthodoxy, Francis will be accompanied throughout his Armenia stay by Catholicos Karenin II, the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church to which more than 90 per cent of the population are affiliated.

Over three days, Francis is to meet with local politicians Friday, lead a prayer for peace late Saturday on Yerevan's Republic Square, and end his trip Sunday at the Khor Virap monastery, which offers stunning views of the biblical Mount Ararat.

From there, Francis and Karenin are scheduled to release two doves towards the snow-covered dormant volcano, where Noah's Ark is said to have came to rest. Despite it being Armenia's national symbol, the mountain is on Turkish territory, separated by a closed border.

Armenia has a special place in Christianity because it was the first nation to adopt it as a state religion, in 301 AD. It has only 3 million inhabitants, but there are 10 million Armenians scattered around the world.

Still, Catholics actually make up less than 10 per cent of Armenia's population. Father Krikor Badichah, vice-rector of the Pontifical Armenian College in Rome, said last month that the Catholic presence in the country is so small that "not everybody knows who Pope Francis is."

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