Pope boosts Armenia’s efforts to have Ottoman killings recognised as genocide

The correct headline should be “Pope calls a spade a spade” or “Pope calls Armenian genocide, genocide.” But as the Guardian explains further down the US and Britain (or our governments – I recall the 80th anniversary service in St Pauls Cathedral in London also used the word genocide) do not recognise the genocide as such. 

Armenia’s efforts to promote greater awareness of the massacre of 1.5 million of its people by Turkey during the fall of the Ottoman empire were given a dramatic boost on Sunday by the pope’s description of the atrocities as “the first genocide of the 20th century” – days ahead of the centenary of the event.

Pope Francis used a special mass in St Peter’s Basilica to mark the anniversary, and referred to “three massive and unprecedented tragedies” of the last century.

“The first, which is widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century, struck your own Armenian people,” the pontiff said. “Bishops and priests, religious women and men, the elderly and even defenceless children and the infirm were murdered.”

Historians estimate that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed in state-organised violence between 1915 and 1922. Russia, France and about 20 other countries recognise it as genocide.

The US and Britain do not, however: most likely to avoid angering their Nato ally. 

Turkey immediately summoned the papal ambassador to Ankara to express its displeasure and later recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. The foreign ministry said the pope had contradicted his message of peace and dialogue during a visit to Turkey in November.

Expressing “great disappointment and sadness”, it called the message discriminatory because it only mentioned the pain suffered by Christian Armenians, and not Muslims and other religious groups.

The fate of the Armenians and impunity for their killers has come to be seen as foreshadowing the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews 25 years later.

Strictly speaking, it was not the first such announcement. In 2001 Pope John Paul II and Kerekin II, the leader of the Armenian Apostolic church, used identical language to that used by Pope Francis on Sunday. The original statement, however, was issued in Echmiadzin, the Armenian equivalent of the Vatican, rather than in Rome.

Analysts said the timing was also highly significant, coming so close to the 24 April commemoration event in Yerevan and around the world. Turkey has infuriated Armenians by choosing to mark the centenary of the wartime Gallipoli landings on exactly the same date, a move deliberately designed to overshadow remembrance of the genocide. Gallipoli has never before been commemorated on that day.

President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an also ignored an invitation from the Armenian president, Serž Sargasyan, for him to come to Yerevan. The Armenian government is expected to welcome the statement when Sargasyan, who attended the mass, returns from Rome.

“This is the first time a mass was dedicated to the Armenian genocide victims in St Peter’s,” said commentator Ara Tadevosyan. “The pope’s acknowledgement that ours was the first genocide of the 20th century is very important. It’s another sign that the civilized world is accepting what happened to us despite all the pressure from Turkey.”

The pontiff’s decision to bracket the mass killing of Armenians with the crimes perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism gives the Vatican’s “highest sanction” to genocide recognition, said Theo van Lint, a professor of Armenian studies at the University of Oxford. “I think it’s very important to realise he gave space to the leaders, the heads of the Armenian church and Armenian Catholics, to fully give their view of events. It’s very clear that the pope accepts that it is a genocide.”


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