ECHMIADZIN (Armenia) (AFP) - The Armenian Church on Thursday conferred sainthood on some 1.5 million Armenians massacred by Ottoman forces a century ago, as tensions raged over Turkey's refusal to recognise the killings as genocide.
The ceremony, which is believed to be the biggest canonisation service in history, came ahead of commemorations expected to see millions of people including heads of state on Friday mark 100 years since the start of the killings.
The two-hour ceremony outside Armenia's main cathedral, Echmiadzin, close to the capital Yerevan, ended at 7:15 pm local time, or 19:15 according to the 24-hour clock (1515 GMT), to symbolise the year when the massacres started during World War I.
"During the dire years of the genocide of the Armenians, millions of our people were uprooted and massacred in a premeditated manner, passed through fire and sword, tasted the bitter fruits of torture and sorrow," Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, said at the ceremony.
"The canonisation of the martyrs of the genocide brings life-giving new breath, grace and blessing to our national and ecclesiastical life."
Clergymen in ornate robes sang ancient chants outside the imposing cathedral built in a pale pink variety of limestone at an open-air altar in a churchyard full of spring greenery.
At the end of the ceremony attended by President Serzh Sarkisian, bells rang out across Armenia and a minute of silence was observed.
Bells also tolled in cities around the world including New York, Madrid, Venice, Berlin and the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Armenian television said.
- 'Triumph of supreme justice' -
"Today's canonisation unites all Armenians living around the globe," said Huri Avetikian, an ethnic Armenian librarian from Lebanon who arrived in her ancestral homeland to attend the service.
"Souls of the victims of the genocide will finally find eternal repose today," said 68-year-old social worker Varduhi Shanakian.
"Supreme justice will triumph."
In canonising the victims, "the Church only recognises what happened: that is, the genocide", Karekin II said ahead of the event which Christian Today, an online publication covering religious news, said could become "the biggest saint-making service in history".
Ex-Soviet Armenia and the huge Armenian diaspora worldwide have battled for decades to get the World War I massacres at the hands of the Ottoman forces between 1915 and 1917 recognised as a targeted genocide.
But modern Turkey, which was born of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, has refused to do so, and relations remain frozen to this day.
Ankara says 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil -- rather than religious -- strife when Armenians rose up against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian troops.
In a rare interview with Turkish television broadcast Thursday, Armenia's Sarkisian expressed hope the two countries could mend fences.
"It is obvious that a reconciliation between the two peoples will have to come about through Turkey recognising the genocide," he told CNN-Turk.
Later Thursday US hard rock band System of a Down whose members are of Armenian descent performed in front of thousands of fans in the pouring rain in Yerevan.
On Friday, hundreds of thousands are expected to join a procession to a hilltop memorial in Yerevan carrying candles and flowers to lay at the eternal flame at the centre of the monument.
In Paris, Los Angeles and other cities, members of the Armenian diaspora that came into existence as a result of the slaughter will also hold commemorations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Francois Hollande are expected to be among a handful of leaders to travel to Armenia for the commemorations, but others are shying away for fear of upsetting Ankara.
- Anger in Turkey -
In a move expected to draw an angry reaction from Turkey, German President Joahim Gauck on Thursday condemned the massacres as genocide, the first time Berlin has officially used the word to describe the bloodletting.
Speaking at a religious service commemorating the centenary, Gauck said the then German empire -- the Ottoman Turkey's ally in WWI -- bore "shared responsibility, possibly shared guilt for the genocide."
Ahead of the ceremonies, Turkey kicked up a diplomatic storm, condemning growing "racism" in Europe.
On Wednesday, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Vienna in protest at the Austrian parliament's decision to call the massacre a "genocide."
Earlier this month Ankara also recalled its envoy to the Vatican after Pope Francis described the killings as "the first genocide of the 20th century."
More than 20 nations -- including France and Russia -- have so far recognised the Armenian genocide, a definition supported by numerous historians.
But the White House conspicuously avoids using the term.
Turkey will on Friday host world leaders to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gallipoli, a day earlier than the actual start of fighting.
Sarkisian has accused Ankara of deliberately "trying to divert world attention" from the Yerevan commemorations.