ROME — Looking ahead to a Vatican Mass Sunday commemorating the 100th anniversary of mass killings regarded by Armenians as a genocide and by Turks as a civil war, Pope Francis walked a diplomatic tightrope on Thursday, decrying “martyrdom and persecution” suffered by Armenians but avoiding the explosive “g” word.
The language illustrates how Francis finds himself caught between two imperatives: Recognizing the calamity that befell Turkey’s Armenian minority a century ago as a harbinger of today’s anti-Christian persecution in the Middle East, without alienating a nation recognized as one of the best hopes for moderation across the Islamic world.
In a meeting with Armenian bishops on Thursday, the pontiff called for “concrete gestures of reconciliation” between the two nations, which find themselves still bitterly divided over the memory of events that led to the death of somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million people between 1915 and 1918.
“It’s important [to remember] the martyrdom and persecution” to which the Armenian people were subjected, Francis said.
Armenia’s Catholic bishops are in Rome to attend a Mass to be celebrated by Francis Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica, 12 days before the official remembrance date of the genocide.
“[During the Mass] we’ll invoke God’s Divine Mercy,” the pope said, “so that he helps everyone, in the love for truth and justice, to heal every wound and to achieve concrete gestures towards reconciliation and peace among nations that still fail to reach a reasonable consensus on the interpretation of these sad events.”
The massacre of Armenians in Turkey at the end of World War I is formally recognized as a “genocide” by 22 countries around the world, including Uruguay, Cyprus, Russia, Germany, Argentina, France, Italy, and Venezuela.
A resolution to acknowledge the events as a “genocide” is currently before the US House of Representatives, and 43 US states already have passed their own resolutions adopting the term.
Pope Francis has a checkered history with regard to the genocide debate.
While still the cardinal of Buenos Aires, he called the mass killings of Armenians the “gravest crime of Ottoman Turkey.” As pope in 2013, Francis called the mass killings of Armenians “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
That language triggered a diplomatic protest, with Turkey’s Foreign Ministry calling the remarks “one-sided” and “in contradiction with … contributing to world peace.”
During his address on Thursday, Francis appeared to choose his language more carefully. Among other things, he linked the exodus of Armenians from Turkey 100 years ago to today’s Christian refugees driven from their homes by ISIS and other militant forces.
“I think with sadness about those regions such as Aleppo [Syria], which a hundred years ago were a safe harbor for the few survivors,” Francis said. “Recently these regions have seen the endurance of Christians, and not only Armenians, put at risk.”
Although the assault on Armenians a century ago isn’t considered to have been motivated primarily by religious reasons, the victims were largely Christian and Francis didn’t back down from pointing it out.
“Not few of your brothers and sisters,” Francis said, “pronounced Christ’s name as they shed their blood or died of starvation during the exodus into which they were forced.”
Holding the Vatican ceremony in advance will allow Armenian dignitaries to participate in the Mass celebrated by Francis — the Sunday of the Divine Mercy — before returning home for the official round of events.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is in Italy and will participate in the Mass, as will the Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX and other Armenian bishops, along with Patriarch Karekin II of the Apostolic Armenian Church and Catholicos Aram I, head of the Catholicosate of Cilicia.
The pontiff is not expected to use the term “genocide” in his public rhetoric Sunday. Nevertheless, a member of Rome’s Armenian community told Crux that the mere fact that the Mass is being held to honor the anniversary of the genocide amounts to a political stance.
“It doesn’t matter of he uses the ‘g’ word, there will be a reaction,” he said over the phone, asking to remain unnamed because he’s not authorized to speak for the organization.
Even if the pontiff does use the term “genocide” Sunday, it would not be a papal first.
In November 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.”
In March 2006, when Benedict XVI received the Armenian Patriarch of Cilicia, he talked about a “terrible persecution written in history with the sadly evocative name of Metz Yeghèrn, the great evil.” (For Armenians, Metz Yeghèrn is a synonym for genocide when they talk about the massacre.)