Pope stirs Turkey ire with geno­cide re­mark


Pope Fran­cis ut­tered the word “geno­cide” on Sun­day to de­scribe the mass mur­der of Ar­me­ni­ans 100 years ago, spark­ing anger from Turkey which sum­moned the Vat­i­can’s am­bas­sador for an ex­pla­na­tion.

“In the past cen­tury our hu­man fam­ily has lived through three mas­sive and un­prece­dented tragedies,” he said dur­ing a solemn mass in Saint Peter’s Basil­ica to mark the cen­te­nary of the Ot­toman killings of Ar­me­ni­ans.

“The first, which is widely con­sid­ered ‘the first geno­cide of the 20th cen­tury’, struck your own Ar­me­nian peo­ple,” he said, quot­ing a state­ment signed by Pope John Paul II and the Ar­me­nian pa­tri­arch in 2001.

Many his­to­ri­ans de­scribe the slaugh­ter as the 20th cen­tury’s first geno­cide, but Turkey hotly de­nies the ac­cu­sa­tion.

Ankara sum­moned the Vat­i­can en­voy and an of­fi­cial state­ment from the for­eign min­istry is ex­pected later Sun­day, tele­vi­sion re­ports said. The pope’s com­ments were ex­ten­sively re­ported on the coun­try’s main news web­sites.

“The pope, the first guest in the palace, used the world ‘geno­cide’,” said the Cumhuriyet daily on its web­site, re­fer­ring iron­i­cally to the fact that the pope was Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan’s first toprank­ing vis­i­tor to his new pres­i­den­tial palace in Ankara when he vis­ited Turkey in Novem­ber 2014.

While Fran­cis did not use his own words to de­scribe the as geno­cide, it was the first time the term was spo­ken aloud in con­nec­tion with Ar­me­nia by a head of the Ro­man Catholic Church in Saint Peter’s Basil­ica.

“It was a very coura­geous act to re­peat clearly that it was a geno­cide,” Vat­i­can ex­pert Marco Tosatti told AFP.

“By quot­ing John Paul II he strength­ened the Church’s po­si­tion, mak­ing it clear where it stands on the is­sue,” he added.

‘Im­mense and sense­less


The Ar­gen­tine pon­tiff de­scribed the “im­mense and sense­less slaugh­ter” and spoke of the duty to “honor their mem­ory, for when­ever mem­ory fades, it means that evil al­lows wounds to fes­ter.”

The 78-year-old head of the Ro­man Catholic Church had been un­der pres­sure to use the term “geno­cide” pub­licly to de­scribe the slaugh­ter, de­spite the risk of alien­at­ing an im­por­tant ally in the fight against rad­i­cal Is­lam.

Be­fore be­com­ing pope, Jorge Ber­goglio used the word sev­eral times in events mark­ing the mass mur­ders, call­ing on Turkey to rec­og­nize the killings as such.

As pope, Fran­cis is said to have used it once dur­ing a pri­vate au­di­ence in 2013 — but even that sparked an out­raged re­ac­tion from Turkey.

Ar­me­ni­ans say up to 1.5 mil­lion of their kin were killed be­tween 1915 and 1917 as the Ot­toman Em­pire was fall­ing apart, and have long sought to win in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion of the mas­sacres as geno­cide.

But Turkey re­jects the claims, ar­gu­ing that 300,000 to 500,000 Ar­me­ni­ans and as many Turks died in civil strife when Ar­me­ni­ans rose up against their Ot­toman rulers and sided with in­vad­ing Rus­sian troops.

More than 20 na­tions, in­clud­ing France and Rus­sia, rec­og­nize the killings as geno­cide.

Vat­i­can ex­pert John Allen said ahead of the mass that the “truly bold” thing for Fran­cis to do was “show re­straint” — some­thing the pope may feel he has achieved by ut­ter­ing the word “geno­cide” but only while quot­ing his Pol­ish pre­de­ces­sor.

When Fran­cis vis­ited Turkey, Er­do­gan of­fered the pon­tiff a pact un­der which he would de­fend Chris­tians in the Mid­dle East in ex­change for the Church tack­ling Is­lam­o­pho­bia in the West, Allen said — de­scrib­ing it as “a po­ten­tial game-changer.”

‘Shed­ding of in­no­cent blood’

In 2014, Er­do­gan, then prime min­is­ter, of­fered con­do­lences for the mass killings for the first time, but the coun­try still blames un­rest and famine for many of the deaths.

Fran­cis said the other two geno­cides of the 20th cen­tury were “per­pe­trated by Nazism and Stal­in­ism,” be­fore point­ing to more re­cent mass killings in Cam­bo­dia, Rwanda, Bu­rundi and Bos­nia.

“It seems that hu­man­ity is in­ca­pable of putting a halt to the shed­ding of in­no­cent blood,” he said.

The Ar­me­nian vic­tims a cen­tury ago were Chris­tian and although the killings were not openly driven by re­li­gious mo­tives, the pon­tiff drew com­par­isons with mod­ern Chris­tian refugees flee­ing Is­lamic mil­i­tants. He re­ferred once again to the mod­ern day as “a time of war, a third world war which is be­ing fought piece­meal,” and evoked the “muf­fled and forgotten cry” of those “de­cap­i­tated, cru­ci­fied, burned alive, or forced to leave their home­land.”

“To­day too we are experiencing a sort of geno­cide cre­ated by gen­eral and col­lec­tive in­dif­fer­ence,” he said.

Vat­i­can watcher Marco Politi said the ad­dress was typ­i­cal of a pope who “uses lan­guage with­out ex­ces­sive diplo­matic cares” and whose aim was to “stim­u­late the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity” to in­ter­vene in mod­ern-day per­se­cu­tions.


(Above) The faith­ful gather in­side St. Peter’s Basil­ica as Pope Fran­cis cel­e­brates an Ar­me­nian-Rite Mass to com­mem­o­rate the 100th an­niver­sary of the Ar­me­nian Geno­cide, in the Vat­i­can City State on Sun­day, April 12. (Left) Catholi­cos Aram I, the spir­i­tual head of the Ar­me­nian Apos­tolic Church, left, walks past Pope Fran­cis dur­ing an Ar­me­ni­anRite Mass to com­mem­o­rate the 100th an­niver­sary of the Ar­me­nian Geno­cide, in St. Peter’s Basil­ica on Sun­day.

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