As nuncio to Armenia, Bettencourt said that he used to travel to the country once or twice a month, but he had been unable to visit the country since March due to the closure of the borders between Georgia and Armenia because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was a great sacrifice for me not to be able to meet these brothers during the past months, but I was totally unable to,” he said.
“On the first occasion I had, therefore, I went to Armenia, especially in the aftermath of the end of the armed hostilities, to bring the Holy Father’s greetings and solidarity.”
Bettencourt’s trip coincided with a visit by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, a delegate of the Armenian Apostolic Church, to the Vatican, where he met with officials at the Pontifical Council for Culture last week to speak about the preservation of Christian heritage in Artsakh.
Artsakh is the ancient historical name of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. The area is recognized by the United Nations as belonging to Azerbaijan, a predominately Muslim country, but is administered by ethnic Armenians, who mostly belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of six autocephalous churches of the Oriental Orthodox communion.
Armenia, which has a population of almost three million, borders Georgia, Azerbaijan, Artsakh, Iran and Turkey. It prides itself on having been the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in the year 301. The disputed territory has had an Armenian identity for millennia and with that a rich Christian history.
The largely Muslim composition of Azerbaijan and the history of Armenian Christianity is a factor in the conflict. The dispute over the territory has been ongoing since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a war fought over the region in 1988-1994.
The papal nuncio said that the Holy See was hopeful that all parties involved would do everything possible to preserve and safeguard the “incomparable artistic and cultural heritage” of Nagorno-Karabakh, which belongs “not only to a nation, but to the whole of humanity” and is under the protection of UNESCO, the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency.
“Beyond the service of charity, the Catholic Church wants above all to convey hope to these peoples. The Holy Father, personally, during the 44 days of conflict raised a heartfelt appeal for peace in the Caucasus four times and invited the universal Church to ask the Lord for the longed-for gift of an end to conflicts,” Bettencourt said.