Pope appears weak as he begins visit to Armenia, raising concern for his
YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) – His hands trembled, he slumped in his chair and aides rushed to his side to offer comfort halfway through a speech he could not finish. Pope John Paul II’s stop in Armenia on Tuesday, his fourth day of a foreign tour, offered a new test of the 81-year-old pontiff’s frail health.
And as often before, he appeared to rebound later in the day, even waving his cane in the air.
John Paul has sought to make this trip for years and scheduled it now to take part in celebrations by the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church marking 1,700 years of Christianity in this country.
On a visit to the church’s seat in Echmiadzin, 15 miles west of the capital, Yerevan, the pope’s hands shook seemingly uncontrollably as he was halfway through his speech in the Apostolic Cathedral.
A priest finished reading John Paul’s prepared text, as the pope sat slumped on a throne on the altar. An aide wiped his face.
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.
Such changeovers have been made in the past when the pope was delivering speeches in languages he does not speak.
When he left the cathedral, John Paul was assisted by an aide and by the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II.
Later in the evening, the pope appeared to have bounced back when he visited Karekin’s residence. He seemed in good spirits and waved his cane in the air.
The pontiff arrived in Armenia from Kazakstan, where he had spent four days.
John Paul, who keeps an active travel schedule despite declining health, was stooped as he exited the Air Kazakstan plane at Zvartnots airport. An aide several times pushed back a part of the pope’s white garments that was blowing around his head in a brisk breeze.
The pope suffers from symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, such as trembling hands and slurred speech. He walks with difficulty and recently has begun wearing a hearing aid at times.
The pope was met on the airport tarmac by President Robert Kocharian and the Armenian patriarch, and the three went to a small covered podium framed by the airport terminal, made of pocked and rain-stained 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.”
The pope also 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 former leader of the Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic Armenian enclave that was the center of a six-year war with Muslim 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, cost about $10 million – a huge sum in the impoverished country, with most of the money coming from Armenians living overseas.
One of those famous Armenians abroad, French singer Charles Aznavour, was on hand for the pope’s stop at the Armenian church headquarters.
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 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.
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