ROME — Pope Francis’ comments on the extermination of Armenian Christians in early 20th-century Turkey prompted a strongly worded criticism from the Turkish Foreign Ministry and led to the withdrawal of Turkey’s ambassador to the Holy See. But what’s the full story?
As the April 24 centenary commemoration of the Armenian genocide approaches, tensions between Turkey and Armenia run high. Despite this, Pope Francis remembered the martyrdom of the Armenian people during his April 12 Mass at the Vatican.
The Turkish government criticized the Pope and an Armenian representative in a Sunday statement, focusing on the use of the word “genocide.”
Most non-Turkish scholars consider the mass killings of 1915-1916 to be a genocide in which the Ottoman Empire systematically exterminated its minority Armenian population, who were predominantly Christian. Roughly 1.5 million Armenians — men, women and children — lost their lives in ways ranging from executions into mass graves to meticulous torture.
Turkey has repeatedly denied that the slaughter was a genocide, saying that the number of deaths was much smaller and came as a result of conflict surrounding World War I. The country holds that many ethnic Turks also lost their lives in the event.
Pope Francis’ comments on Sunday set off a firestorm of criticism among Turkish leaders, prompting the removal of the country’s Vatican ambassador.
What could be lesser known, however, is that the Pope’s introductory remarks included a precise quote of the joint text that St. John Paul II and Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos Karekin II of the Armenian Apostolic Church issued on Sept. 27, 2001, during a papal visit to Armenia.
The text said “the extermination of a million and a half Armenian Christians, in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the 20th century, and the subsequent annihilation of thousands under the former totalitarian regime, are tragedies that still live in the memory of the present-day generation.”
Though never read aloud by John Paul II, the words of this joint statement were balanced and correctly stressed that the Armenian massacre is “generally referred to as the first genocide of the 20th century.” On the other hand, John Paul II never spoke aloud the word “genocide” in his speeches in Armenia, though he had acknowledged the Armenian martyrdom when he visited the genocide memorial in Armenia on Sept. 26, 2001.
During that visit, St. John Paul II read a prayer and reminded his audience that Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) “raised his voice in defense of ‘the sorely afflicted Armenian people.’”
“We are appalled by the terrible violence done to the Armenian people and dismayed that the world still knows such inhumanity,” John Paul II said.
The same spirit pervaded Pope Francis’ text. A source who works in Vatican diplomacy told CNA April 13 that the papal text had been sent in advance to Vatican diplomatic circles, and there had been a discussion over whether using the word genocide could lead to some diplomatic tensions.
In the end, “a full quote from the 2001 joint text was considered the best way to give the message and avoid any diplomatic tension.”
When Pope Francis read the text on Sunday, he did not explicitly say he was quoting John Paul II. This led media reports to emphasize that the Pope recognized the Armenian genocide.
However, the concluding off-the-cuff remarks by Aram I, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, disturbed Turkish authorities even more.
Towards the end of his Armenian-language speech, Catholicos Aram I spoke for about 10 minutes in English. He underscored that “the Armenian genocide is an unforgettable and undeniable fact of history, deeply rooted in the annals of modern history and in the common consciousness of the Armenian people. Therefore, any attempt to erase it from history and from our common history is doomed to fade.”
He also stated, “According to the international law, genocide is a crime against humanity. International law spells out clearly that condemnation, recognition and reparation of the genocides are closely interconnected. The Armenian cause is a cause of justice, and as we well know, justice is not human made; it’s a gift of God; therefore, the violation of justice is a sin against God.”
In the end, these words caused the declaration from the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The statement clearly pointed out that it concerned the statements of both “Pope Francis and of the Armenian representatives” and charged that both of them “contradict historical facts.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry’s statement focused on the legal concept of genocide. The ministry said that “claims not fulfilling the requirements of law, even if they are attempted to be explained on the basis of widespread conviction, are bound to remain as slanders.”
The release also objected that Pope Francis’ prior statements referred to the “tragic events” in Bosnia and Rwanda as “mass killings,” which “competent international courts” have declared to be genocides.
The ministry claimed that Pope Francis called “the events of 1915” a genocide “despite the absence of any such competent court judgment.”
These concerns were conveyed to the papal nuncio to Turkey, Archbishop Antonio Lucibello, and are likely part of a formal diplomatic protest forwarded to the Holy See through Mehmet Paçaci, Turkish ambassador to the Holy See, who was called to Turkey for consultations on Sunday.
Turkish reaction also comes in the context of the interactions between the Turkish and Armenian governments in view of the upcoming April 24 commemoration of the mass killings. The commemoration will take place in the Armenian capital of Erevan. Many heads of state have been invited, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan declined the invitation and organized another ceremony the very same day to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the World War I Gallipoli campaign, one of the most famous battles of World War I between Ottoman troops and invading Allied forces. The Turkish president invited U.S. President Barack Obama and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who declined the invitation.
These splits let understand why the issue has been so strongly addressed by the Turkish government. However, it is noteworthy that both the Holy See newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and the Italian Bishops’ Conference’s newspaper L’Avvenire referred more to the martyrdom of Armenians than to a genocide, putting into action prudent — yet tough — language.