ROME — One week after Easter Sunday, Pope Francis is scheduled to celebrate a service in the Armenian Catholic rite to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a mass killing of Armenians by Turks in the early 20th century that the pontiff defined two years ago as the “first genocide of the modern era.”
In a time of mounting anti-Christian violence in various corners of the Middle East, the pope’s act is likely to take on more than merely historical interest.
The April 12 papal liturgy is part of a broader campaign by Armenians to keep the memory of their suffering alive, which will feature the ringing of bells in Armenian churches around the world on April 23 at 19:15 (7:15 p.m.), the hour chosen to symbolically recall the year 1915. Bells will sound everywhere but Turkey, where the small number of churches still in operation will remain silent.
Francis has long been aware of the calamity that befell Turkey’s Armenian minority, having led an ecumenical service of remembrance in Buenos Aires in 2006.
“Today we come to pray for this people to whom human rights still don’t apply,” then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said on that occasion. He called for “the end of the empire’s silence,” referring to the Ottomans and their successors in today’s Turkey, saying that acknowledging what had happened would “bring peace to the Armenian people.”
Scholars believe that 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of efforts to drive Armenians and other minorities from their homelands in present-day Turkey after World War I. It’s often acknowledged as the first genocide of the 20th century, and a forerunner to later atrocities such as those committed by Nazi Germany and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.
Many observers also see echoes of the Armenian genocide in today’s ISIS campaign to proclaim itself a “caliphate” and to drive Christians and other minority groups out of territory under its control.
The pontiff’s April 12 commemoration is likely to stir diplomatic controversy, since Turkey officially insists that what happened a century ago was the result of civil war and unrest, and that the Armenian death toll has been inflated. Turkey also asserts that large numbers of Turks, Kurds, and Arabs died in the same period.
The sensitivity can be glimpsed from the fact that during his three-day visit to Turkey last November, Pope Francis never publicly mentioned the Armenian genocide. When asked about the omission by a reporter, he said only that he hoped for “small gestures” of reconciliation such as opening the Turkish/Armenian border.
Only 22 countries, including Uruguay, Cyprus, Russia, Germany, Argentina, France, Italy, Venezuela, and the Vatican, officially recognize the massacres as genocide. (A resolution to do the same is in the US House; 43 US states have passed their own resolutions recognizing the term.) Turkey objects vigorously whenever public figures use the term, including delivering an official note of protest two years ago when Francis called the killings a “genocide.”
Italian journalist Marco Tosatti, who has written extensively on the persecution of Armenians under the Turks, says this isn’t just a debate among historians, but a matter of Turkey “owning up to its own past.”
Tosatti said that for most of its more than 600-year history, the Ottoman Empire prided itself on being multi-ethnic and multi-religious. When it began to crumble in the early 20th century, however, the architects of the new Turkey were nationalists who decided that minority groups “needed to be gone … because they signified a problem to the idea of a nation with one ethnicity and one religion.”
Greeks, Bulgarians and Armenians in Turkey all found themselves under mounting pressure. On the night of April 24, 1915, more than 200 leaders in the Armenian community in what’s known today as Istanbul were arrested and most were executed, beginning a systemic killing and forced relocation that would last until 1923.
The Jesuit-run magazine Civiltà Cattolica, which enjoys semi-official Vatican status, recently published statistics showing that of the 98,800 Catholic Armenian faithful living in Turkey when the killings began, only 33,900 survived. Of 156 churches and chapels, only 20 stood at the end, and of 110 missions, only 10 were still active by 1923.
One of the reasons it’s difficult for modern Turkey to recognize the genocide, Tosatti said, is the fact that the new Turkish state, created in 1923, has Armenian blood in its founding stones.
“The new Turkish republic has at its base this original sin, with which it can’t settle the score,” he said.
Another factor in explaining Turkey’s reticence, he said, is the fact that in the Middle East, a nation that apologizes puts itself in a position of weakness.
“But even for many inside [Turkey], it’s not possible to keep hiding what is evident,” Tosatti said. “There are documents, including a diary of [one of the founders of Turkey], detailing the number of deaths.”
The Vatican’s remembrance of the genocide comes 12 days before the actual centennial. Holding the ceremony in advance will allow all Armenian communities to participate in the Mass celebrated by Francis on the Sunday of the Divine Mercy.
The Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX, together with the Armenian bishops, plan to attend. Patriarch Karekin II of the Apostolic Armenian Church and Catholicos Aram I, head of the Catholicosate of Cilicia, are also expected to attend.
Before his election to the papacy, Francis had referred to the Armenian genocide in a series of conversations he had with his Argentinian friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, compiled in the 2010 book “On Heaven and Earth.”
The future pope said the world “washed its hands” while the mass killings were occurring.
“The Ottoman Empire was strong, and the world was at war and looking the other way,” he said.
It’s a position he has maintained as pope. In June 2013, the pontiff welcomed Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni, Patriarch of the Catholic Armenian Church, to the Vatican in a private audience that included the daughter of a genocide survivor.
Francis took her hands in his and told her, “Yours was the first genocide of the 20th century.”
Soon after, Turkey’s foreign minister defined the pope’s statement as “completely unacceptable,” which forced the Vatican spokesman to say that the remarks were in no way a formal or public declaration, and therefore didn’t constitute a public assertion by the pope recognizing the genocide.
Pope Francis’ words, however, are in line with his immediate predecessors, who also addressed the systematic annihilation of Armenians.
In Nov. 2000, Pope John Paul II and Armenian Patriarch Karekin II signed a joint statement that said: “The Armenian genocide, which began the century, was a prologue to horrors that would follow.”
When Pope John Paul II traveled to Armenia the following year, he avoided using the word “genocide,” instead employing the expression “Metz Yeghèrn” (Great Evil), used by the Armenians as a synonym of the genocide.
At the end of his visit, however, John Paul II and Karekin II signed a new statement in which they condemned the extermination of 1 1/2 million Armenian Christians “in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.”
On March 2006, when Benedict XVI received the Armenian Patriarch of Cilicia, he talked about a “terrible persecution that is written in history with the sadly evocative name of Metz Yeghèrn, the great evil.”
Some 80 years before that, in September of 1915, Pope Benedict XV was the only sovereign to publicly intervene in favor of the Armenians. He sent a letter to Sultan Mohammed V in which he highlighted the seriousness of the massacres and asked, in vain, for them to stop. According to the Vatican’s files, other letters would follow with the same results.
“We’re told of entire populations of villages and cities being forced to abandon their homes and moved with untold hardship and suffering to distant concentration camps,” the 1915 letter says. “We exhort to your magnanimous generosity to have pity and intervene in favor of this people.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the United States recognized the Armenian massacres as a genocide.