In a keynote speech to the authorities and the diplomatic corps on his first day in Armenia, Pope Francis recalled “the genocide” of the Armenians 100 years ago and commented that “it is so sad” that then, as with “two others” since then, “the great international powers looked the other way.” Francis delivered the last speech at the presidential palace, after paying a courtesy visit on the president.
His use of the word “genocide” surprised journalists travelling with him as it was not in the prepared text provided to them in advance by the Vatican; instead there was the term “Metz Yeghern” (“The Great Evil”), the classic word term used by Armenians today (like Jews will use “Shoah”). Consequently, many concluded—wrongly as it happens—that he had chosen to avoid using the word lest he upset again the Turkish authorities who had reacted strongly when he used it last year in St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope had been commemorating the centenary of the killing of some 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
Speaking afterwards, Federico Lombardi, S.J., the director of the Holy See Press Office, reminded journalists that when a text is distributed in advance it must always be checked against what the pope actually says.
It should also be said that Francis is not an ally of the politically correct; he speaks straight, even when he knows his words may upset some. He does not aim to upset but only to speak the truth and call things by their real name.
In his speech, he used not only the expression “Metz Yeghern,” he also used “genocide,” and in this he showed his coherence because several times in the past, including when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had referred to the Armenian genocide as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Last April, in St. Peter’s Basilica, he also identified “two other” genocides: those committed under Stalinism and Nazism, and he recognizes too that there have been other genocides in in Asia, the Balkans and Africa.
Referring to the Armenian genocide, he commented that “sadly, that tragedy was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.”
Francis went on to pay homage to the Armenian people “who, illuminated by the light of the Gospel, even at the most tragic moments of their history, have always found in the cross and resurrection of Christ the strength to rise again and take up their journey anew with dignity.” This shows, he said, “the depth of their Christian faith and its boundless treasures of consolation and hope.”
Then turning from the past to the present, Francis expressed the lively hope that “having seen the pernicious effects to which hatred, prejudice and the untrammeled desire for dominion led in the last century” humanity today “will learn from those tragic experiences the need to act with responsibility and wisdom to avoid the danger of a return to such horrors.”
He appealed, as he had done at the United Nations last September, that “whenever conflicts emerge between nations” in today’s world then all should join together “in striving to ensure that dialogue, the enduring and authentic quest of peace, cooperation between states and the constant commitment of international organizations will always prevail, with the aim of creating a climate of trust favorable for the achievement of lasting agreements.”
He assured the Armenian authorities and the governments represented by the diplomatic corps that the Catholic Church “wishes to cooperate actively with all those who have at heart the future of civilization and respect for the rights of the human person, so that spiritual values will prevail in our world and those who befoul their meaning and beauty will be exposed as such.”
Well aware of the misuse of religion by fundamentalists and terrorists, Francis said, “It is vitally important that all those who declare their faith in God join forces to isolate those who use religion to promote war, oppression and violent persecution, exploiting and manipulating the holy name of God.”
In this context, he recalled that “today Christians in particular, perhaps even more than at the time of the first martyrs, in some places experience discrimination and persecution for the mere fact of professing their faith.”
There are “all too many conflicts in various parts of the world remain unresolved, causing grief, destruction and forced migrations of entire peoples,” Francis stated.
He said, “It is essential that those responsible for the future of the nations undertake courageously and without delay initiatives aimed at ending these sufferings, making their primary goal the quest for peace, the defense and acceptance of victims of aggression and persecution, the promotion of justice and sustainable development.” He encouraged the Armenian people who have experienced all these situations firsthand to make their own precious contribution to the international community.
Recalling that Armenia is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its independence, he said it would be more significant if it becomes for all Armenians, both at home and in the diaspora, a special moment to promote the country’s civil and social development, “one that is equitable and inclusive” and that favors “the full participation of all in the life of society, freedom of religion and respect for minorities.”
He encouraged them to foster “a spirit of unity between all Armenians and a growing commitment to find helpful means of overcoming tension with neighboring countries” and said this “will facilitate the realization of these important goals, and inaugurate for Armenia an age of true rebirth.”
In this context, it is worth mentioning that the country’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, in his speech of welcome, hailed Francis for recognizing the Armenian genocide. And, he told him: “We don’t look for culprits. We don’t spread accusations. We simply want things to be called by their names, as it will allow two neighboring peoples to move forward towards genuine reconciliation, and a shared prosperous future by recognizing the past and embracing forgiveness and a clean conscience.”
The president concluded by alluding to the problems and tensions in this complicated region of the Caucasus where Armenia and Azerbaijan are in conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh, and he told the pope: “Armenia still aspires for peace. In any event, we prefer peaceful negotiation to shooting. We are ready for peaceful regional coexistence, as hard as the road to peace may be.”