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Tired pope struggles through speech in Armenia

Pope John Paul II, looking frail and tired, broke off in the middle of a speech on Tuesday but later rebounded and waved his cane in good cheer, on the first day of a trip to pay tribute to Armenia's ancient Christian church.

On a visit to the Armenian Apostolic Church's seat in Echmiadzin, 15 miles west of the capital Yerevan, the 81-year-old 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 cathedral's altar.

Afterwards, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the plan had been for the pope to deliver the first portion of his address in English, and the priest to finish it in Armenian.

The spokesman did not say whether the pope broke off ahead of schedule. Such changeovers have been made in the past when the pope was delivering speeches in languages that he does not speak. John Paul, who suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease such as trembling hands and slurred speech, rebounded at a later private stop in the visit. He walked about 50 metres at one point without the use of cane and waving the cane in the air cheerfully.

The Holy Father arrived in Armenia earlier Tuesday from Astana, the capital of Kazakstan, where he had spent four days. The pope, who keeps an active travel schedule despite declining health, was stooped as he exited the Air Kazakstan plane at Zvartnots airport. 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 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."