This month marks the centennial commemoration of the lives lost during the 1915 Armenian Genocide, and amidst continuing debate about the nature of the killings, Pope Francis has publicly acknowledged that they did, indeed, constitute genocide. During a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica conducted in the Armenian Catholic rite to mark the centennial of the start of the killings, the pontiff clearly articulated his belief regarding the mass killings Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the beginning of World War I. He echoed a statement previously made by Pope John Paul II, who called the killings “the first genocide of the 20th century,” and then went on to equate the tragedy to the other two major 20th-century genocides: Nazism and Stalinism.
The pope’s use of the word “genocide,” which he later reiterated in a statement to all Armenians, triggered much backlash from Turkish diplomats. Turkey has historically resisted that the events of 1915-1923—which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians—should be defined as genocide, citing the unreliability of the death count and the acts of war going on throughout Eastern Europe as evidence. Thus, they were quick to counter the Pope’s allegations. Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu took to Twitter following the Holy Father’s statements, calling his acknowledgment of the genocide “baseless” and stating that “It is not possible to accept the pope’s statement, which is far from any legal or historical reality,” and that “Religious authorities are not the places to incite resentment and hatred.”
Furthermore, the Turkish Ambassador to the Vatican Mehmet Pacaci had reported before the Mass that he had spoken with the pontiff, and convinced him to redact the phrase “Armenian genocide” from his prepared statement. The fact that Pope Francis did speak at length regarding the genocide, contrary to Pacaci’s report, led to Turkey immediately recall Ambassador Pacaci from his position, drawing even more attention to the situation.
However, Pope Francis’ statement should not really have been surprising, given his typical straightforward demeanor and willingness to enter into international political disputes. Furthermore, the Holy See has a long history of supporting Armenians, considering Armenia was the first nation to officially adopt Christianity, even before the Edict of Milan. Additionally, Popes have condemned Ottoman-Turkish aggression against Armenians since it began: in September of 1915, Pope Benedict XV wrote Sultan Mohamet V asking him to please stop the deliberate massacre of innocent people in Armenia.
This is not to underestimate the importance of Francis actively voicing his position now though: as Armenia remembers the horrors of last century, they have asked the world to stand with them in memorializing this centennial of the genocide, and call it as such. As perhaps the most powerful and listened to religious voice in the world, Pope Francis’ addition of the Vatican to the chorus of countries finally acknowledging the genocide is profoundly important.
In his statement, he also called for the world to not sit idly by as we remember the “Bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children” who were killed. Instead, he called for an end to “senseless killings” still happening around the world.
“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,” the pontiff pointed out.
Perhaps, as the world remembers the tragic events that began in April 1915, they will be inspired by Pope Francis, so that 100 years from now we will not have to be acknowledging the centennial of senseless killings in 2015.