John Paul laments Armenians' deaths under Ottoman rule

Wednesday, September 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) _ Pope John Paul II gave tribute Wednesday to the vast number of Armenians who perished under Ottoman rule, one of the most painful chapters of the country's history.

``We are appalled by the terrible violence done to the Armenian people and dismayed that the world still knows such inhumanity,'' the pope said in a prayer at the Tsitsernagaberd memorial complex on a hill overlooking the Armenian capital.

He spoke while sitting at the memorial's eternal flame, flanked by the Armenian Apostolic Church's leader, Catholicos Karekin II, and a phalanx of priests in black robes and cowls.

The complex commemorates an estimated 1.5 million people whom Armenia says 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 as the Ottoman Empire tried to quell civil unrest.

Turkey has protested some countries' recognition of the deaths as genocide and the visit to the memorial presents the pope a challenge in his efforts to promote harmony and peace.

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.

``For the English-speaking public, 'genocide' would have been more explicit,'' said the Rev. Jirair Sogomian of the Protestant Armenian Evangelical Church in Paramus, N.J., who was in the audience.

In the afternoon, the pontiff goes to 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 light-brown stone cathedral, its interior still not entirely finished, rises against a backdrop of shabby Soviet-era apartment monoliths.

The $10 million cost _ a huge amount in the impoverished country_ was paid for mostly by Armenians living overseas. It repeats the practice common in Armenian churches abroad of providing pews for worshippers; in the rest of the country's Apostolic churches, worshippers stand throughout the service.

The three-day trip to Armenia, following four days in Kazakstan, is putting the 81-year-old pope's frail health to the test.

At the memorial, he sat with his head in both hands and stood with a severe stoop.

On Tuesday, during a service at the Armenian church's main cathedral in Echmiadzin, the pope's hand trembled strongly and aides rushed to his side to offer comfort halfway through his speech. A priest finished reading John Paul's prepared text, as the pope sat slumped on a throne on the altar.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the plan had been for the priest to take over and finish the address in Armenian after the pope had delivered the first portion in English. John Paul appeared to rebound later in the day, at one point even waving his cane in the air.