Frail pope unable to complete speech in Armenia

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Associated Press WriterYEREVAN, Armenia (AP) -- Pope John Paul II, appearing frail and tired, was unable to complete his speech after arriving Tuesday in the capital of Armenia. A priest finished reading the prepared text, as the 81-year-old pontiff sat slumped on a throne.

John Paul's plane landed at Yerevan's Zvartnots airport for a three-day visit to pay tribute to the country's ancient Christian church. He had come from Astana, the capital of Kazakstan, where he had spent four days.

The pontiff, who retains an active travel schedule despite declining health, was stooped as he exited the Air Kazakstan jet into on a sunny day with the temperature around 72. An aide several times pushed back a part of the pope's white garments that was blowing around his head in a brisk breeze.

Later, on a visit to the Armenian Apostolic Church's seat in Echmiadzin, about 15 miles west of Yerevan, the pope's hands shook seemingly uncontrollably as he was reading his speech. A priest finished reading the text.

The pope suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease such as trembling hands and slurred speech.

The Pope was met on the airport tarmac by President Robert Kocharian and the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, and the three went to a small covered podium framed by the airport terminal, made of pocked concrete like many of the structures in this impoverished former Soviet republic.

John Paul said he had come to honor the "extraordinary witness of Christian borne by the Armenian Apostolic Church through so many centuries and not least in the 20th century, which for you was a time of unspeakable terror and suffering."

Speaking slowly but firmly, the pope continued the trip's emphasis on preventing religious differences from exploding into war and violence, calling for "peace with all men on a solid foundation of mutual respect and justice."

Kocharian, a leader of the Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic Armenian enclave that was the center of a six-year war with Azerbaijan, said in the current times of "deplorable manifestations of hatred, (Christianity's) universal values of compassion and brotherly love have added meaning and significance."

The pope's visit is part of ceremonies celebrating the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity as the state religion. Armenia, in 301, became the world's first country to declare itself Christian.

The Armenian 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 with Orthodox churches.

The pope is to hold liturgies at Echmiadzin and at St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan. The cathedral, still unfinished, has cost about $10 million -- a huge sum in the impoverished country, with most of the money coming from Armenians living overseas.

The Pope also is to visit the monument to the estimated 1.5 million Armenians who died in 1915-23 in what Armenia insists was genocide conducted by Turkey.

Turkey vehemently denies that the deaths were genocide and has harshly criticized countries that call it that. The pope has called the deaths genocide but has not declared any party responsible.

John Paul's trip has focused on seeking to reduce religious tensions in the wake of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. The United States blames Islamic extremists for the attacks.

On Monday, the pope said in mostly Muslim Kazakstan that the Roman Catholic Church respects "authentic Islam" but "hatred, fanaticism and terrorism profane the name of God and disfigure the true image of man."

In Tuesday's final appearance in Kazakstan, John Paul called on the country's young people to "be ready to promote peace, so often threatened by the specter of catastrophic wars." He also paid tribute to Kazakstan's record of interethnic harmony.

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