Date: 12/04/2015

Pope Francis Sparks Diplomatic Incident With Turkey After Calling WWI Slaughter Of Armenians A 'Genocide'

Posted: 12/04/2015 15:45 BST Updated: 3 hours ago

Turkey says it is "greatly disappointed" with the Vatican and had lost trust in relations, after Pope Francis called the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks "the first genocide of the 20th century."

Francis sparked a diplomatic incident on Sunday with his comments at a Mass marking the centenary of the slaughter from 1915, when the Ottoman government killed Armenian subjects living in what is now present-day Turkey.

The event is not recognised as a genocide by some countries, such as Italy and the United States, who avoid using the word as they are close allies with Turkey. But Pope Francis, who has close ties to the Armenian community, urged the international community to recognise the killings as a genocide.

The Pope took the significant decision to call the event a genocide

Turkey - which denies a genocide took place - immediately summoned the Vatican ambassador and its Foreign Ministry said that it had expressed "great disappointment and sadness."

The country said in a statement that the Pope's message had contradicted his message of peace and dialogue that had taken place during a visit to Turkey in November.

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The Turkish 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.

Francis, who has close ties to the Armenian community from his days in Argentina, defended his pronouncement by saying it was his duty to honour the memory of the innocent men, women and children who were "senselessly" murdered by Ottoman Turks 100 years ago this month.

"Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it," he said at the start of a Mass in the Armenian Catholic rite in St. Peter's Basilica honoring the centenary of the killings.

Clergy members take pictures of Pope Francis at the mass

In a subsequent message directed to all Armenians, Francis called on all heads of state and international organizations to recognise the truth of what transpired and oppose such crimes "without ceding to ambiguity or compromise."

Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks from around 1915, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century.

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The Armenian Genocide; April 24, 1915
Turkey, however, has insisted that the toll has been inflated, and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest, not genocide. It has fiercely lobbied to prevent countries, including the Holy See, from officially recogniding the Armenian massacre as genocide.

Turkey's embassy to the Holy See canceled a planned news conference for Sunday, presumably after learning that the pope would utter the word "genocide" despite its objections.

But Francis' willingness to rile Ankara with his words showed once again that he has few qualms about taking diplomatic risks for issues close to his heart. He took a similar risk by inviting the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to pray together for peace at the Vatican - a summit that was followed by the outbreak of fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Francis' words on the Armenian massacre were welcomed by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Aram I, who thanked Francis for his clear condemnation and recall that "genocide" is a crime against humanity that requires reparation.

"International law spells out clearly that condemnation, recognition and reparation of a genocide are closely interconnected," Aram said in English at the end of the Mass to applause from the pews.

Aram said the Armenian cause is a cause of justice, and that justice is a gift of God. "Therefore, the violation of justice is a sin against God," he said.

The pope's declaration prompted mixed reactions in the streets in Istanbul. Some said they supported it, but others did not agree.

"I don't support the word genocide being used by a great religious figure who has many followers," said Mucahit Yucedal, 25. "Genocide is a serious allegation."

Several European countries - including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not the Westminster government - recognise the massacres as genocide.

Pope Francis celebrates the Armenian-Rite Mass to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the killings

Francis is not the first pope to call the massacre a genocide. In his remarks, Francis cited a 2001 declaration signed by St. John Paul II and the Armenian church leader, Karenkin II, which said the deaths were considered "the first genocide of the 20th century."

But the context of Francis' pronunciation was significant: he uttered the words during an Armenian rite Mass in St. Peter's Basilica marking the 100th anniversary of the slaughter, alongside the Armenian Catholic patriarch, Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni, Armenian Christian church leaders and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who sat in a place of honor in the basilica.

The definition of genocide has long been contentious. The United Nations in 1948 defined genocide as killing and other acts intended to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, but many dispute which mass killings should be called genocide.

In his remarks on Sunday, Francis said the Armenian slaughter was the first of three "massive and unprecedented" genocides last century that was followed by the Holocaust and Stalinism. He said other mass killings had followed, including in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia.

"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," he said.

Francis has frequently denounced the "complicit silence" of the world community in the face of the modern-day slaughter of Christians and other religious minorities by Islamic extremists.

During Sunday's Mass, Francis also honoured the Armenian community at the start of the Mass by pronouncing a 10th-century Armenian mystic, St. Gregory of Narek, a doctor of the church. Only 35 people have been given the title, which is reserved for those whose writings have greatly served the universal church.

The Mass was rich in traditional Armenian music, with haunting hymns sung. Children dressed in traditional costumes presented the gifts at the altar, which was bathed in a cloud of incense.

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