Pope Francis called on neighbours Armenia and Turkey to lay aside their differences and also expressed his hopes for peace in the Caucasus region during an ecumenical prayer service in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
“May God bless your future and grant that the people of Armenia and Turkey take up again the path of reconciliation, and may peace also spring forth in Nagorno-Karabakh,” the pope said on Saturday.
Addressing the younger generation, Francis said: “Cherish the great wisdom of your elders and strive to be peacemakers: not content with the status quo, but actively engaged in building the culture of encounter and reconciliation.”
The people gathered for the services applauded the words of the 79-year-old pontiff.
Earlier on Saturday, Francis paid his respects to Armenian massacre victims during a visit to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial complex in Yerevan.
At the start of his three-day trip to Armenia on Friday, Francis condemned the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Turkish Ottoman troops as “genocide”, a term strongly denied by Turkey, which says the number is inflated.
Ankara agrees that many Armenians died in ethnic fighting and the deportation process between 1915 and 1917 during World War I, putting its estimate at 300,000 casualties. Armenia says 1.5 million died in the process in what it calls a “genocide”.
The remark was the second time the Pope has referred to the killings as genocide, following a similar statement in 2015 which angered Turkey.
Turkey reacted furiously last year when Francis, during a mass at St Peter’s basilica, said that the massacres were “widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century”.
Ankara withdrew its ambassador from the Vatican in protest and relations remain deeply frozen at a time when the Catholic Church is preoccupied by the plight of Christians in the Middle East, an issue in which Turkey is a key player.
In silent prayer, the pope laid a wreath and a yellow rose at the memorial before planting a tree nearby, ahead of a meeting with a dozen people whose relatives escaped the killings and were given shelter by Pope Benedict XV during World War I.
As well as with Ankara, Armenia has difficult relations with Azerbaijan, another neighbour.
The two nations have rival claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Azeri territory where violence broke out in April, killing at least 120 people.
Armenia has a special place in Christianity because it was the first nation to adopt it as a state religion, in 301 AD.
John Paul II was the last pope to visit it in 2001, to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the country’s conversion.
On Sunday the pope will join a pilgrimage to the Khor Virap monastery, which overlooks the biblical Mount Ararat across a closed border with Turkey.