Pope Francis on Sunday, April 12, 2015 described the World War I-era slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks as the first genocide of the 20th century, igniting a diplomatic confrontation with Turkey, which quickly summoned the Vatican’s ambassador to condemn the pontiff’s remarks and recalled its own ambassador to the Holy See.
He also described his frustration with what he considers global indifference toward the persecution and killing of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere, especially by militants with the Islamic State.
“Today, too, we are experiencing a sort of genocide created by general and collective indifference,” Francis said.
In addressing the Armenian question, Francis quoted from a 2001 declaration by Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin II, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s supreme patriarch, in which the two leaders called the Armenian slaughter a campaign of extermination that was “generally referred to as the first genocide of the 20th century.”
Vatican diplomats have been deliberately prudent in avoiding the term, so in using it during the Mass on Sunday, before an audience that included the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, Francis clearly intended to provoke a response. He equated the fate of the Armenians with the genocides orchestrated by the Nazis and the Soviets under Stalin, while also condemning “other mass killings, like those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia.”
“It seems that humanity is incapable of putting a halt to the shedding of innocent blood,” Francis said. “It seems that the human family has refused to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today, too, there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few, and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand by.”
Francis said it was a duty of everyone not to forget the “senseless slaughter” of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks from 1915 to 1923. “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it,” the pope added.
Turkey has long resisted the genocide designation, saying that a large number of Turks were also killed during and after the First World War, when Armenians sided with Russian and Western forces in hopes of claiming an independent homeland in eastern Turkey as the Ottoman Empire was dying.
Many Armenians have long demanded that Turkey acknowledge that about 1.5 million of their forebears were actually killed in a systematic genocide. More than 20 countries have passed parliamentary bills recognizing the killings as genocide, while nations like Greece and Switzerland have called for criminal charges against those who deny it.
On Sunday, Turkish officials in Ankara, the capital, summoned Archbishop Antonio Lucibello, the Vatican’s ambassador to Turkey, and notified him of their government’s “grave disappointment and sadness” over the pope’s remarks, which were “away from historical facts” and dismissive of the deaths of non-Christians in the country during the same historical period, according to a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol.
On Twitter, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, dismissed Francis’ comments as baseless. “It is not possible to accept the pope’s statement, which is far from any legal or historical reality,” he wrote. “Religious authorities are not the places to incite resentment and hatred with baseless allegations.”
Later, the Foreign Ministry said that Ankara’s ambassador to the Vatican, Mehmet Pacaci, had been recalled for “deliberations.”
Since becoming pope in March 2013, Francis has made a habit of inserting himself into delicate foreign policy issues, usually in the role of broker. Last June, after visiting the Holy Land, he played host to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents at a “prayer summit” at the Vatican. However, that failed to produce a diplomatic breakthrough, and soon afterward, Israeli troops began an assault against the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip.
Francis was more successful in helping break the decades-old impasse between Cuba and the United States, and President Obama credited the pontiff and Vatican diplomats for playing host to a critical secret meeting in the negotiations and serving as a guarantor trusted by both sides.
Yet beyond the broker role, Francis also has used the bully pulpit of the papacy to speak out, often in blunt terms, about issues like what he sees as the shortcomings of global capitalism (and the attendant problem of rising inequality) and, especially, his outrage over the proliferation of war and violence in the world. At different times, he has spoken out against conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria as well as in Africa.
As leader of one billion Roman Catholics, Francis also has repeatedly condemned the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the “plotters of terrorism,” alluding to militants with the Islamic State. Last year, he seemed to veer close to endorsing a military attack on the Islamic State when he said that it would be legitimate for the international community to confront the group’s “unjust aggression.”
Francis visited Turkey last November, partly to bolster the standing of his friend and ally, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, leader of the country’s Orthodox Christians. He also met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Ankara hoped to signal a joint campaign against Islamophobia. On Sunday, Turkish officials portrayed the pope’s latest remarks as a betrayal.
“The pope’s statement is surprising and disappointing, especially following his message of dialogue during his visit last November,” said an official from the prime minister’s office, speaking on the condition of anonymity by government protocol. “A one-side statement that only acknowledges the suffering of Christians and ignores the suffering of the Muslims at that time.
“These kinds of statements only damage and hinder the process of reconciliation,” the official added.
The issue of reconciliation between Turkey and the country’s Armenian population remains unresolved. When Mr. Erdogan was the nation’s prime minister, he suggested that an intergovernmental history commission be formed between Turkey and Armenia, and perhaps a third country, to assess the issue.
Last year, Mr. Erdogan stopped short of using the word “genocide” but in an unprecedented move, he offered condolences to the grandchildren of those who lost their lives in the events that began in 1915, in a statement released in nine languages.
Yet since then, any progress toward reconciliation with the Armenian diaspora has been limited.
Turkey’s relations with the Vatican have had other tense moments since Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist goverment took power more than a decade ago. In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, expressed his displeasure at the prospect of Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation, joining the European Union.
As pope, Benedict later withdrew that statement during an official visit to Turkey in 2006. But that same year he touched off an international uproar when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who called the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad “evil and inhuman.”
Alberto Melloni, a historian of the Vatican, said Francis’ remarks on Sunday were consistent with his blunt-spoken style and his sympathy for all victims. “He decided to use the words that Armenians use, to use the point of view of the victim,” Mr. Melloni said. “This is very Francis.”
"The New York Times," April 12, 2015