ROME — While honoring the memory of Armenian martyrs Sunday, Pope Francis said they had been killed “in the first genocide of the 20th century,” prompting Turkey to recall its Vatican ambassador in protest.
Crux confirmed by phone with the Vatican’s embassy in Ankara that Turkey had recalled its ambassador, although the embassy to the Vatican declined comment. The diplomatic row comes despite the fact that Pope Francis was simply quoting a 2001 declaration by Pope John Paul II and the head of the Armenian church.
Meanwhile, Turkey said it conveyed to the Vatican its loss of trust in their relationship, according to the Associated Press. In a statement, Turkey said the Pope’s message had contradicted his message of peace and dialogue during a visit to Turkey in November. It said that a response would be forthcoming. The Foreign Ministry said that it had expressed “great disappointment and sadness.” The statement also called the Pope’s message discriminatory because he only mentioned the pains suffered by Christian Armenians and not Muslims and other religious groups.
It’s a matter of duty, Francis said Sunday, to remember “that immense and senseless slaughter” whose cruelty Armenians had to endure, “for whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester.”
The pontiff was referring to the death of an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians as the Ottoman Empire crumbled at the end of World War I, which Armenians term a “genocide” and Turks insist was the result of a civil conflict. Turks typically also claim that the Armenian death toll has been inflated.
Francis was speaking during a Vatican Mass with a number of Armenian dignitaries present for the 100th anniversary of Armenian suffering.
The pontiff linked that calamity to contemporary anti-Christian persecution, since the vast majority of the Armenian victims a century ago were Christians. He said that today, too, the world is indifferent over “a sort of genocide” as Christians and other minorities are decapitated, crucified, burned alive, or forced to leave their homeland.
“Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it!” the pontiff said.
Francis made no other reference to Turkey, either during his greeting or during his homily.
More broadly, the pope also said that the world has yet to learn that “war is madness, senseless slaughter.”
Francis said the human family seems to refuse to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, and still today there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few and with the complicit silence of others.
During his initial greeting, the pope repeated something he has said before, complaining of a “third world war” today being fought “at piecemeal,” one in which, he said, we daily witness savage crimes, brutal massacres, and senseless destruction.
The first genocide of the 20th century Francis said, struck not just Armenians, but also Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Greeks, adding that bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly, and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.
Remembering the victims of the genocides perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism, and also the more recent mass killings in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi, and Bosnia, the pope said that it seems “humanity is incapable of putting a halt to the shedding of innocent blood.”
The pontiff said that cruelty can never be considered God’s work, and that it “can find absolutely no justification in his Holy Name.”
During his short homily, the pontiff reflected on Jesus’ Divine Mercy, celebrated by the Church on the first Sunday after Easter Sunday.
Francis said that faced with the tragic events of human history, humanity’s evil can appear in the world like “an abyss,” a great void: empty of love, empty of goodness, empty of life. Through his crucifixion, the pope said, Jesus “fills the abyss of sin with the depth of his mercy.”
The Mass in honor of the centennial of the Armenian Martyrdom and the proclamation of St. Gregory of Narek as Doctor of the Church came 12 days before the official remembrance date of the genocide.
The massacre of Armenians in Turkey during the fallout of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I is formally recognized as a genocide by 22 countries around the world. A resolution to acknowledge the events as such is currently before the US House of Representatives, and 43 US states already have passed their own resolutions adopting the term.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, 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, participated in the celebration.
Also present in the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica was Brazilian Monsignor Vartan W. Boghossian, Eparch of the Armenian Exarchate of Latin America.
Talking to Crux on Saturday, Boghossian defined this celebration presided over by Pope Francis as the axis of the international commemoration of the centennial of the genocide.
“When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires,” Boghossian said, “Francis showed great affection for the Armenian people, participating in the annual commemoration of the genocide and placing an Armenian cross in the cathedral church.”
The eparch also said that remembering this genocide is important because it wasn’t just the first of the 20th century, but also the first attempt to annihilate a Christian nation.
“It began because of political needs,” Boghossian said, “but as we see today in the Middle East, during the Armenian genocide some were given the chance of converting [to Islam] to escape death.”
The Mass celebrated in Rome was originally planned to declare St. Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church, but according to Boghossian, it was the pope who insisted it should also be in honor of the martyrs.
Closing the ceremony, Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX said that he hoped the proclamation of Narek as a Doctor of the Church would help the Armenian people to overcome the disgrace suffered 100 years ago.
Bedros also said he was confident Narek would help all Christians, particularly those in the Middle East who are suffering similar disgraces to that of the Armenians.
Patriarch Karekin II said that “we cannot forget this crime against humanity,” and reaffirmed the Armenian plight to fight not only for recognition and remembrance, but also for “justice.”
“The Armenian genocide is unforgettable and unforgivable,” Karekin said, “forever rooted in the consciousness of the Armenian people. Any attempt to erase it from history is destined to fail.”