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VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis is making his first foray into the former Soviet Union with a weekend visit to Armenia, a year after he riled Turkey by declaring the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians genocide and amid fresh tensions with rival Azerbaijan.
The Vatican has long cheered the Armenian cause, holding up the poverty-wracked nation of 3 million mostly Orthodox Christians as a bastion of faith and martyrdom in a largely Muslim region, and the first nation that established Christianity as a state religion in 301.
During the visit starting Friday, Francis will pray at Armenia's genocide memorial, release a dove of peace near Armenia's closed western border with Turkey and pray for peace in the region during an ecumenical prayer service with the Oriental Orthodox patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Karekin II.
Even though Catholics represent a tiny minority, Armenians across the board seem thrilled that Francis is visiting and sided with them in terming the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians a century ago genocide.
"Everyone is looking forward to and preparing for his visit," said Roza Karapetyan, a resident of northwestern Gyumri where Francis will celebrate the only Catholic Mass of his trip. "Same with me, I am very much looking forward to his arrival and counting the days."
The trip was originally planned as a peace-building mission to Armenia and Azerbaijan but was split up amid fighting that flared this spring in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Now, Francis will only visit Armenia and will "complete" the Caucasus trip after a two-month layover in Rome, visiting Azerbaijan and Georgia Sept. 30-Oct. 2, according to the Vatican.
The tensions stem from the longstanding dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is officially part of Azerbaijan, but since a separatist war ended in 1994, has been under the control of forces that claim to be local ethnic Armenians but that Azerbaijan claims include regular Armenian military.
The sides are separated by a demilitarized buffer zone, but small clashes break out frequently. About 75 soldiers from both sides, along with several civilians, were killed in April in the worst violence since 1994.
In a video message released on the eve of his trip, Francis said Armenia's tortured history is one of admiration and pain, "admiration because you have found in the cross of Jesus and in your own ingenuity the strength to always get up, even from the sufferings that are among the most terrible that humanity has known; pain for the tragedies that your fathers have known in the flesh."
But in a hint that his three-day trip is not meant to dwell on the past, the pope also urged Armenians not to be beholden to ancient hatreds but look forward with hope.
Francis is likely to make an appeal for a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict during an ecumenical prayer for peace on Saturday in Republic Square of the capital, Yerevan. The Vatican said tens of thousands of Armenians are expected in what will be the biggest crowd for Francis' visit.
Another highlight will be Francis' visit to Armenia's genocide memorial, where he will meet with descendants of some of the 400 Armenian orphans taken in by Pope Pius XI and housed at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in the years after the massacres.
At the memorial museum, Francis will see the letter Pius' predecessor, Pope Benedict XV, wrote to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V in 1915 begging him to stop the atrocities.
In a Mass celebrated in April, 2015 in St. Peter's Basilica, Francis called the slaughter the "first genocide of the 20th century" and urged the international community to recognize it as such.
Turkey, which disputes the description, immediately responded by recalling its ambassador and accusing Francis of spreading hatred and "unfounded claims." It says the death toll has been inflated and considers those killed victims of a civil war and unrest.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, bristled when asked whether the pope would repeat the word "genocide" during the trip, suggesting that the Vatican had moved beyond the politically-loaded term while still recognizing the grave injustices done.
"Why is there this obsession of using the word 'genocide?'" Lombardi asked. "We know what happened. No one denies that there were these horrible massacres. We know it well and we recognize them."
Francis' trip comes 15 years after John Paul visited Armenia and signed a joint declaration with the head of the Apostolic Church, Karekin II, calling the slaughter genocide.
Francis and Karekin were supposed to sign a joint declaration this time around about improved ties between the Apostolic and Catholic churches. But at the last minute, the declaration was scrapped, apparently over internal divisions within the Apostolic Church where some bishops have opposed increasingly close ties with Rome.
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. But the Armenian church has established friendly relations with both the Vatican and other Orthodox churches.
AP writer Avet Demourian and producer Sophiko Megrelidze contributed from Yerevan, Armenia
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