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Gerard O’ConnellApril 12, 2015
CNS photo

Pope Francis referred to the mass killing of the Armenians in 1915 as "the first genocide of the 20th century,” during a solemn mass in St Peter’s Basilica, on April 12, commemorating the centenary of that great tragedy.

Speaking fearlessly, and overriding political protests from Turkey, Francis used the term ‘genocide’ for this mass killing of 1.5 million people, which the Armenians call ‘Metz Yeghern,’ meaning ‘Great Evil.’ He had already used the term ‘genocide’ three times for this tragedy as archbishop of Buenos Aires, in the book co-authored with Rabbi Abraham Skorka.

Turkey has always denied that the killings which began on the night of 23-24 April 1915 were genocide, and claims the numbers are inflated (it says no more than 300-500,000 were killed), but many countries disagree and have now recognized this as genocide, and the historical evidence confirms this. The Vatican had a frank exchange with Turkey on this question in recent times, and so the Pope’s words would have come as no surprise to the Turkish authorities.

Francis used the word ‘genocide’ in a special greeting to Armenian Christians at the beginning of mass in St Peter’s Basilica, attended by the country’s President, Serz Sargsyan, and the spiritual leaders of the Armenians, including the three Patriarchs: Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos, Arim I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, and Nerses Bedros XIX of the Armenian Catholics. 

He framed the Armenian genocide in the wider context of what is happening in the world today, and of the genocides that stained with blood the history of the 20th century. Moreover, he used the word by quoting from a statement by John Paul II and Karekin II in 2001. 

Speaking of today’s world, the Jesuit pope affirmed yet again that we are in the presence of “a third world war which is being fought piecemeal, one in which we daily witness savage crimes, brutal massacres and senseless destruction.” 

“Sadly, today too we hear the muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death – decapitated, crucified, burned alive – or forced to leave their homeland,” he said. 

“Today – he stated – we are experiencing a sort of genocide created by general and collective indifference, by the complicit silence of Cain, who cries out: “What does it matter to me? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Turning to the centenary commemoration, he recalled that “in the past century” too “our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies. The first, which is widely considered “the first genocide of the twentieth century” (JOHN PAUL II and KAREKIN II, Common Declaration, Etchmiadzin, 27 September 2001), struck your own Armenian people, the first Christian nation, as well as Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks. Bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”

He went onto refer to the two other recognized genocides of the 20th century, and said, “The remaining two were perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism.”

The Argentine pope did not stop there, however, he also recalled other mass killings of the last century that the United Nations has not recognized as genocides – for political reasons – some of which, if not all, could have justifiably merited such recognition. 

“More recently – he stated - there have been other mass killings, like those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia.”

In a more general comment, he observed: “It seems that humanity is incapable of putting a halt to the shedding of innocent blood. It seems that the enthusiasm generated at the end of the Second World War has dissipated and is now disappearing. 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. We have not yet learned that “war is madness,” “senseless slaughter.”

Then turning to all Armenian Christians, he said, “Today, with hearts filled with pain but at the same time with great hope in the risen Lord, we recall the centenary of that tragic event, that immense and senseless slaughter whose cruelty your forebears had to endure. It is necessary, and indeed a duty, to honor their memory, for whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester. Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it!”

He greeted them “with affection” and added, “I thank you for your witness.”

He concluded with words of encouragement, telling them that “in the firm certainty that evil never comes from God, who is infinitely good, and standing firm in faith, let us profess that cruelty may never be considered God’s work and, what is more, can find absolutely no justification in his Holy Name.” 

“Let us continue this celebration – he said – by fixing our gaze on Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, victor over death and evil.”

There were thousands of Armenians from many parts of the world present in the basilica, and they applauded with great appreciation when Francis finished speaking. Among them were 200 from Argentina, representing the 100,000 strong Armenian community that live there, with whom the future pope had close relations as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

After this initial greeting, Pope Francis went onto celebrate the mass, at the beginning of which he declared the Armenian saint, Gregory of Narek (950-2005), a Doctor of the Universal Church. He thus becomes one of the Church’s 36 doctors (32 men and 4 women). This brought more applause from the descendants of the first Christian nation in history.

An Armenian women’s choir sang beautifully at the mass, alongside the Sistine choir. The Gospel was read in Armenian, and children from this nation brought gifts to the Pope at the offertory of mass, as many ambassadors accredited to the Holy See looked on, including the US ambassador, Kenneth Hackett.

Pope Francis exchanged the kiss of peace with the three Armenian Patriarchs, whom he also invited to join in imparting the blessing at the end of the celebration.

The Patriarchs spoke at the end of mass, thanking the Pope for this centenary celebration and also for honoring St Gregory of Narek. The strongest words came from Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians; he recalled the genocide of his people as “an unforgettable and undeniable fact of history” and said “any attempt to erase it from history is destined to fail.” He described the genocide as “carefully planned and systematically executed” and said 1.5 million people were killed, and religious properties were destroyed or confiscated. He described the Armenian cause as “a cause of justice,” and renewed their call for reparation and compensation for this great tragedy.

The Supreme Patriarch recalled how Benedict XV had sent a strongly worded note to the Ottoman authorities in 1915 calling for a stop to the genocide. He went on to praise “the solidarity” shown to the Armenians by the Vatican and the Popes over many decades, and concluded by expressing “our deep gratitude” to Pope Francis for all he has done for them, and especially for today’s celebration. He then embraced the Pope.


In a separate act, also on April 12, Pope Francis sent a Message to the Armenian people on the occasion of the centenary of Metz Yeghern and the proclamation of St Gregory of Narek as Doctor of the Church. The full text in English can be found here: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/pont-messages/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150412_messaggio-armeni.html

UPDATE (April 13, 1:47 p.m.): Turkey has reacted strongly to Pope Francis’ statement on Sunday, April 12, that the killings of Armenians during World War I "is widely considered as ‘the first genocide of the 20th century.'"  

The Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu blamed the Pope for using “inappropriate” and “one-sided” language. Speaking in Istanbul, he said that “only highlighting one side's suffering during war time and discriminating the others' pain is not appropriate for the pope and the authority that he holds." He claimed that such a‘one-sided and incoherent’ statement gives credence to rising racism and anti-Turkish approach in Europe.

For its part, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the Apostolic Nuncio in Ankara,  Archbishop Antonio Lucibello,  on Sunday, and expressed “grave disappointment and sadness” over the Pope’s remarks.

It also recalled its ambassador to the Holy See, Mehmet Pacaci, “ for consultations.” And it issued a strongly worded statement saying Pope Francis “contradict history and legal facts” and charged that he “has discriminated about people's suffering” by overlooking the atrocities that Turks and Muslims suffered in the First World War and only highlighted the Christian suffering, especially that of the Armenian people. (http://www.mfa.gov.tr/no_-110_-12-april-2015_-press-release-regarding-the-statements-delivered-during-the-liturgy-in-vatican-on-april-12_-2015.en.mfa)

Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, slammed the Pope's statement via the social media and said, “Religious offices are not places through which hatred and animosity are fueled by unfounded allegations.”

The Speaker of the Turkish Parliament, Cemil Cicek, condemned Pope Francis’ remarks on April 13, according to the local media, describing them as “slander” and “discrimination.” He said, “It is a statement which provokes political discrimination, racism hate speech.”

The head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Mehmet Görmez, who connected well with Pope Francis during his visit to Anakara in November 2014, also criticized the use of the term "genocide" for the killings that took place during the Ottoman era. 

“It is upsetting that political lobbies and PR firms around the world have extended [their activities] to religious institutions’ rites and prayers. If societies start to interrogate each other over past sorrows, the Vatican will suffer more than anyone else,” he said Mehmet on April 13, according to The Anadolu Agency.

Turkey's official position against the allegations of "genocide" is that it acknowledges the past experiences were a great tragedy and that both parties suffered heavy casualties. It agrees that there were Armenian casualties during World War I, but argues that it’s impossible to define these as "genocide.” It is highly sensitive to the use of that world

It should be noted, however, that Pope Francis actually quoted the exact words regarding genocide that John Paul II used in 2001 in a joint statement with the Supreme Patriarch of the Armenians, Karekin II.  But the political climate has changed since then.

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John Walton
7 years 5 months ago
While you're busily criticizing genocide -- 8 million Congolese were killed during the reign of Leopold II of Belgium should be in your sights. Perhaps Pius X should have piped up. Furthermore, in the Pope's home country the indigenous peoples have, essentially, been eliminated (as is true in most of South America.)
Vince Killoran
7 years 5 months ago
So that's it, i.e., if you denounce an atrocity in one country or region of the world you must itemize every atrocity that has ever been committed? In fact, recent popes have offered apologies for a hosts of injustices: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_apologies_made_by_Pope_John_Paul_II
John Walton
7 years 5 months ago
Pius X or his successor Benedict XV would most likely have had more sway with the monarch of Belgium. He could have excommunicated the King. This would have horrified the Belgians in the period prior to WW-1. While Benedict XV tried to prevent the ongoing slaughter in Armenia, he had no sway over the Sultan, and the Turk alignment with Germany made the situation even more difficult. I don't consider one instance of genocide to be worse than another.
Martin Eble
7 years 5 months ago
I am having trouble connecting the dots between Leopold II of Belgium and St Pius X. Pius X passed away in 1914 after over a year of decreasing health, including a heart attack. Leopold II passed away in 1909 and was so unpopular at his death that the funeral procession was booed. Leopold had organized a private holding company characterized as an international scientific and philanthropic association, the “International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of the Congo”. At the Berlin Conference concluding in 1885 Leopold was recognized as sovereign of the Congo Free State, 76 times larger than Belgium, under his personal rule and his own private army, the “Force Publique”. In the late 1890s he ordered the restriction of foreign access and his agents began extorting forced labor from the Congolese with beatings, widespread killing, and mutilation when the production quotas were not met. As evidence of the atrocities leaked out, the British in 1904 issued the Casement Report detailing abuses in the Congo Free State. Belgian’s Parliament forced Leopold to set up an independent commission of enquiry, whose findings confirmed the Casement Report. In 1908 the Parliament of Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and took over its administration as the Belgian Congo. While this was going on, St Pius X was dealing with the aftermath of the 1905 French Law of Separation, which separated church and state, and resulted in the Church’s loss of government funding, the expulsion of the Jesuits from France, and a break in diplomatic relations. The Polish Catholics in Russia, although promised by Czar Nicholas II by decree in 1903 religious freedom for the Catholic Church, faced stiff resistance and repression from the efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church, and papal decrees were not permitted and contacts with the Vatican remained outlawed. Given the communications of the era, the rapid and ongoing opposition to the absuses in the “Free” Congo by both international governments and the Belgian Parliament, the short four-year window between the Casement Report and the Belgian Parliament’s annexation of the Congo Free State, and the pressing matters he was dealing with, what has St Pius X to do with it?

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