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Pope's visit to Armenia's closed border with Turkey sparks fury

Pope Francis, left, and Catholicos Karekin II, right, walk together at the end of an open-air liturgy at the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, Yerevan, Armenia. Picture by Andrew Medichini, Associated Press
Nicole Winfield and Avet Demourian

POPE Francis is ending his trip to Armenia with a visit to the closed border with Turkey amid new tensions with Ankara over his recognition of the 1915 "genocide".

Turkey issued a harsh rebuttal late Saturday to Francis' declaration upon arrival in Armenia that the slaughter was a planned genocide to exterminate Armenians.

Turkish deputy prime minister Nurettin Canikli called the comments "greatly unfortunate" and said they bore the hallmarks of the "mentality of the Crusades".

Turkey rejects the term, saying the 1.5 million deaths cited by historians is an inflated figure and that people died on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed amid the First World War.

When the pope first used it last year, Turkey withdrew its ambassador for 10 months and accused Francis of spreading lies.

Mr Canikli said the term "does not comply with the truth".

He added: "Everyone knows that. We all know it, the whole world knows it, and so do the Armenians."

Francis made the remarks at the start of his three-day visit and followed up with a call for the world to never forget or minimise the "immense and senseless slaughter".

On Sunday, he was turning his attention more towards religious affairs, participating in a liturgy in the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Oriental Orthodox church.

The landlocked nation of 3 million was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301.

The Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches split in a theological dispute over the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ, arising from the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon.

While still divided over the primacy of the pope, the Armenian church has established friendly relations with the Vatican, and Francis' visit has been a visible testimony to their close ties.

After the liturgy, Francis was due to head west to Armenia's border with Turkey.

Turkey closed the frontier in support for its ally and ethnic kin, Azerbaijan, after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted into a full-scale war in 1992.

The blockade has worsened Armenia's economic problems.

Francis has said he would love to see the border reopened, given his long-standing call for countries to build bridges, not walls, at their frontiers.

He is due to release a dove of peace near the border at the Khor Virap monastery.

The monastery is one of the most sacred sites in Armenia and lies in the shadow of Mount Ararat, where according to legend, Noah landed his Ark after the great flood.

On Saturday, Francis paid his respects at Armenia's imposing genocide memorial and greeted descendants of survivors of the 1915 massacres.

"Here I pray with sorrow in my heart, so that a tragedy like this never again occurs, so that humanity will never forget and will know how to defeat evil with good," he wrote in the memorial's guest book.

"May God protect the memory of the Armenian people. Memory should never be watered-down or forgotten. Memory is the source of peace and the future."

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