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Pope calls on Armenian Catholics to help rebuild country

Updated:
YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) _ Pope John Paul II opened his final day in Armenia on Thursday with a call to Armenia's small Catholic community to help rebuild the economically suffering country.

The pope presided at an outdoor Mass at Echmiadzin, 15 miles west of the capital Yerevan, the seat of the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church.

``At this time, Armenia needs from all her sons and daughters fresh efforts and new sacrifices,'' John Paul said in a homily delivered by another priest in Armenian. ``I am certain that in this momentous task, our brothers and sisters of the Armenian Apostolic Church look upon the members of the Catholic community as children of the same mother.''

About 5 percent of Armenia's 3.6 million people are Catholics or adherents of a uniate church that follows an Orthodox liturgy but accepts the supremacy of the pope.

Most others are followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which separated from the Catholic Church during a fifth-century theological dispute. The two churches have established friendly relations.

The pope's three-day trip to Armenia was connected with commemorations of the 1,700th anniversary of proclamation of Armenia as a Christian state, the first country to make such a declaration.

He arrived after four days in Kazakstan on a trip that has put the 81-year-old pontiff's frail health to the test.

On arrival in Echmiadzin, he appeared pale and walked with more difficulty than usual, assisted by two aides. He spoke slowly and slurringly for about five minutes in English, before turning over the rest of the homily to the Armenian priest.

On Wednesday, he visited a memorial to Armenians who perished under the Ottomans.

Armenia says 1.5 million people were victims of genocide in a 1915-23 campaign to force them out of eastern Turkey. Turkey says the death count is inflated and that Armenians were killed or displaced along with others as the Ottoman Empire tried to quell civil unrest.

Turkey has protested some countries' recognition of the deaths as genocide and John Paul walked a careful line to ensure Wednesday's visit was without political implications.

The pope previously has termed the deaths genocide, but has not declared any party responsible. On Wednesday, he delicately skirted the issue in delivering his prayer in English.

``Listen, O Lord, to the lament that rises from this place, to the call of the dead from the depths of the Metz Yeghern,'' he said, using the Armenian-language phrase for the deaths. ``Yeghern'' means both ``genocide'' and ``crime'' in Armenian.

On Thursday, he used similarly careful phrasing in a declaration that he signed along with Armenian Apostolic Church leader Catholicos Karekin II.

``The extermination of 1.5 million Armenian Christians, in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the 20th century, and the subsequent annihilation of thousands under the former totalitarian regime are tragedies that still live in the memory of the present-day generation,'' the statement said.

During his trip, the pontiff also visited a site symbolizing Armenians' hopes for recovery from the economic suffering of their first decade of post-Soviet independence _ the new St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in downtown Yerevan.

The $10 million cathedral was funded mostly by contributions from Armenians living overseas.

Nearly half of Armenia's people are estimated to live below the official poverty line and per-capita gross domestic product is about $3,000 a year _ a tenth of that in the United States.
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