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Pope opens historic visit to Armenia

Pope John Paul II began an historic visit to the former Soviet republic of Armenia on Tuesday with a powerful appeal for an end to the conflict in the region and a call for respect for human rights.

After landing at Yerevan's Zvartnots airport from Kazakhstan, where he had been since the weekend, the pontiff alluded to Armenia's still-unresolved war with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ordinary people and government officials "should engage ... in the urgent search for peace in this region," he said, adding that they should put the "progress of the nation before any partisan interests."

The 81-year-old pontiff made history when he touched down in Armenia, becoming the first head of the Roman Catholic church to visit this Orthodox Christian country in the Caucasus mountains.

His visit coincides with celebrations to mark the 1700th anniversary of Armenia adopting Christianity -- the first nation in the world to do so -- as its state religion.

Sitting on a low stage with a canopy stretched over it after being helped down the aircraft steps by an aide, the Pope paid tribute to the Armenian church and people. In particular, he made an implicit reference to the massacre of millions of Armenians at the hands of Turkish invaders at the turn of the last century.

He said Armenia had borne "extraordinary witness of Christian life through so many centuries, not least in the 20th century, which for you was a time of unspeakable terror and suffering."

"Forever, the annals of the universal church will say that the people of Armenia were the first as a whole people to embrace the grace and truth of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Then in a clear reference to the conflict with Azerbaijan, he said: "Peace can be built only on the solid basis of mutual respect, justice in relations between different communities and magnanimity on the part of the strong."

Armenia and mainly Muslim Azerbaijan fought a bitter war in the early 1990's after ethnic Armenians seized control of the enclave, which is officially Azeri territory.