Pope Francis Mentions Genocide in Context of Armenia's Tragedy

(photo: Screenshot)

Pope Francis has set aside diplomatic sensitivities with Turkey by unexpectedly referring to the word “genocide” in a speech in the Armenian capital Yerevan this afternoon.

Addressing Armenian President Serzh Sargsián, Catholicos Karekin II, and civic dignitaries, Pope Francis departed from his prepared text to say the word while referring to the visit Karekin made to the Vatican last year.

In April 2015, Armenian Church leaders and the Holy Father commemorated in St. Peter’s basilica the centenary since the massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians.

Turkey has condemned the use of the word genocide as it believes the number killed to be an exaggerated figure, and it claims they were, in any case, victims of civil war and unrest that included many Turks. 

“The Metz Yeghérn, the “Great Evil”, the Pope said today, “struck your people and caused the death of a vast multitude of persons.”

He added that “sadly, that tragedy, that genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.” 

He again departed from his prepared text to say that it is “so sad that, either both this [genocide] and the other two [it’s not clear which genocides he means here], the other international powers were looking in another direction."

In the weeks leading up to the Pope's visit, it wasn't clear if the Pope would mention the word and risk causing a diplomatic rift with Turkey, especially as last week he said he preferred to use the word "martyrdom". After the Pope mentioned the word at last year's commemoration, Turkey temporarily withdrew its ambassador to the Holy See, and in the days leading up to this visit, the Pope and the Vatican appeared to be making strenuous efforts to avoid saying it. 

But Father Lombardi told reporters Friday evening that the substance of the word genocide is "very clear" and the Holy See has "never denied what the reality is." After alluding to the Pope's words last week in the context of martyrdom, he said the Pope "has seen no reason not to use this word in this case [of the Armenian genocide]. It’s an evaluation and we accept it."

Father Lombardi then went on to stress that the Pope "always speaks in the perspective of peace and reconciliation and dialogue with diferent peoples, nations and cultures. On this trip he will surely speak again in this direction." He went on to say that many Armenians have good relations with Turks, and vice-versa, and "many desire peace and dialogue." He added that if they have a memories of the past, it is better to "understand what the lessons of the past are so we can avoid repeating what happened in the future."

This is "exactly what the Pope says about tragedies of the past century," Father Lombardi said, in which the Pope has recalled genocides in Africa and the Balkans — "horrible" tragedies that are "very near to us."

He said "many do not understand the lessons of the past" and what human dignity is. "We have always to recall this, but always for the sake of peace and dignity, not for polemics and new conflicts. This is the intention of the Pope."

Asked if perhaps the Pope had been warned by the Secretariat of State not to use the word genocide but overruled them, Father Lombardi replied: "This is not correct, he saw all the texts, and this was the text that he had in mind to pronounce. It was not imposed by me, by Cardinal Parolin [the Secetariat of State] or anyone else."

But he added that the Pope is always "free to change the text."

"Sometime you prefer a surprise that has a certain shock, and in a sense it is clear the Pope has chosen today to add this word. But he also added other words that were in his mind." 

In his discourse, the Holy Father also praised the Church in Armenia during the rest of his speech and the great contribution Christianity has made to the country. Here below is the full text of his speech:

Mr President, 

Honourable Authorities, 
Distinguished Members of the Diplomatic Corps, 
Dear Brothers and Sisters,

It gives me great joy to be here, to set foot on the soil of this beloved land of Armenia, to visit a people of ancient and rich traditions, a people that has given courageous testimony to its faith and suffered greatly, yet has shown itself capable of constantly being reborn.

“Our turquoise sky, our clear waters, the flood of light, the summer sun and the proud winter borealis… our age-old stones … our ancient etched books which have become a prayer” (ELISE CIARENZ, Ode to Armenia). These are among the powerful images that one of your illustrious poets offers us to illustrate the rich history and natural beauty of Armenia. They sum up the rich legacy and the glorious yet dramatic experience of a people and their deep-seated love of their country.

I am most grateful to you, Mr President, for your kind words of welcome in the name of the government and people of Armenia, and for your gracious invitation that has made it possible to reciprocate the visit you made to the Vatican last year. There you attended the solemn celebration in Saint Peter’s Basilica, together with Their Holinesses Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch-Catholicos of All Armenians, and Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, and His Beatitude Nerses Bedros XIX, Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenians, recently deceased. The occasion was the commemoration of the centenary of the Metz Yeghérn, the “Great Evil” that struck your people and caused the death of a vast multitude of persons. Sadly, that tragedy, that genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.  It is so sad that, either both this and the other two,, the other international powers were looking in another direction.

I pay homage to the Armenian people who, illuminated by the light of the Gospel, even at the most tragic moments of their history, have always found in the cross and resurrection of Christ the strength to rise again and take up their journey anew with dignity. This shows the depth of their Christian faith and its boundless treasures of consolation and hope. Having seen the pernicious effects to which hatred, prejudice and the untrammelled desire for dominion led in the last century, I express my lively hope that humanity will learn from those tragic experiences the need to act with responsibility and wisdom to avoid the danger of a return to such horrors. May all join in striving to ensure that whenever conflicts emerge between nations, dialogue, the enduring and authentic quest of peace, cooperation between states and the constant commitment of international organizations will always prevail, with the aim of creating a climate of trust favourable for the achievement of lasting agreements.

The Catholic Church wishes to cooperate actively with all those who have at heart the future of civilization and respect for the rights of the human person, so that spiritual values will prevail in our world and those who befoul their meaning and beauty will be exposed as such. In this regard, it is vitally important that all those who declare their faith in God join forces to isolate those who use religion to promote war, oppression and violent persecution, exploiting and manipulating the holy name of God.

Today Christians in particular, perhaps even more than at the time of the first martyrs, in some places experience discrimination and persecution for the mere fact of professing their faith. At the same time, all too many conflicts in various parts of the world remain unresolved, causing grief, destruction and forced migrations of entire peoples. It is essential that those responsible for the future of the nations undertake courageously and without delay initiatives aimed at ending these sufferings, making their primary goal the quest for peace, the defence and acceptance of victims of aggression and persecution, the promotion of justice and sustainable development. The Armenian people have experienced these situations firsthand; they have known suffering and pain; they have known persecution; they preserved not only the memory of past hurts, but also the spirit that has enabled them always to start over again. I encourage you not to fail to make your own precious contribution to the international community.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Armenia’s independence. It is a joyful occasion, but also an opportunity, in cherishing the goals already achieved, to propose new ones for the future. The celebration of this happy anniversary will be all the more significant if it becomes for all Armenians, both at home and in the diaspora, a special moment for gathering and coordinating energies for the sake of promoting the country’s civil and social development of the country, one that is equitable and inclusive. This will involve constant concern for ensuring respect for the moral imperatives of equal justice for all and solidarity with the less fortunate (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Farewell Address from Armenia, 27 September 2001: Insegnamenti XXIX/2 [2001], 489). The history of your country runs parallel to its Christian identity preserved over the centuries. That identity, far from impeding a healthy secularity of the state, instead requires and nourishes it, favouring the full participation of all in the life of society, freedom of religion and respect for minorities. A spirit of unity between all Armenians and a growing commitment to find helpful means of overcoming tension with neighbouring countries, will facilitate the realization of these important goals, and inaugurate for Armenia an age of true rebirth.

The Catholic Church is present in this country with limited human resources, yet readily offers her contribution to the development of society, particularly through her work with the poor and vulnerable in the areas of healthcare and education, but also in the specific area of charitable assistance. This is seen in the work carried out in the past twenty-five years by the Redemptoris Mater Hospital in Ashotsk, the educational institute in Yerevan, the initiatives of Caritas Armenia and the works managed by the various religious congregations.

May God bless and protect Armenia, a land illumined by the faith, the courage of the martyrs and that hope which proves stronger than any suffering.

[Original text: Italian]