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The Armenian genocide claim by Pope Francis, which took place at a Mass on Sunday, angered officials in Turkey. Francis has strong ties with the Armenian community, from when he served in Argentina and told them that it was his duty to ensure the memory of the innocent victims be honored. In his speech, he called on world leaders and organizations to acknowledge the truth of these horrors, and to prevent them from ever happening again; he also cited subsequent tragedies, like those perpetrated by Stalinism and Nazism, as well as more modern genocides (such as Cambodia, Bosnia, Burundi, and Rwanda).
At the mass, held at an Armenian Catholic ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Pope stood before Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan (as well as some leaders of the church) and claimed that the Armenian genocide was the first of three massive and unprecedented tragedies of the 20th century. His words echoed similar ones spoken in 2001 by Pope John Paul II, which caused Turkey to respond by recalling its envoy to the Vatican.
The Armenian Genocide has been a long-standing issue of contention between past Turkish governments and ethnic Armenians, whose ancestors had been killed in the fighting during World War I. Armenians, as well as many historians and scholars, claim that 1.5 million of their people died during World War I (the war which caused the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of modern Turkey.) Most of them consider this a genocide, and countries that recognize it as such include Canada, Belgium, Italy, France, Russia, Uruguay, and Argentina. Turkey considers this number to be much smaller and that deaths which occurred resulted from clashes that took place during war, which included the deaths of ethnic Turks as well. In 2014, Turkish Prime Minister Tacep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged the death of the Armenians by offering condolences to their descendants, but also accused Armenia and the West of politicizing the conflict.
Turkey, in addition to recalling its ambassador (a decision which was reasoned to the Vatican as being for consulting purposes) cancelled a news conference scheduled for the same day. A spokesman for Turkey stated that its people would not recognize the remarks of the Pope, saying that the Armenian genocide claim, in addition to angering them, distorted history and only acknowledged the pains on one side based on religion. In addition, many Muslims have felt that the world in general has been one-sided with regard to the Armenian genocide.
Following World War I (when nation building took place,) Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim country bordering Armenia, became one of the first countries to attain independence as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. Prior to the independence, in a conflict that involved oil as well as nationalism, Armenian nationalists massacred the neighboring Azerbaijani population who were closely aligned with the Turks. Both Turks and Azeri’s claim that this attempt to turn Azerbaijan into a part of greater Armenia was ignored by Western powers in favor of the better known Armenian genocide. Conflict between the two countries has, in fact, continued up to this day with most of the West favoring the Armenian claim.
Prior to the Pope’s Armenian genocide claim (which angered Turkey) the Pope had been sensitive to Muslim sensitivities, picking his words carefully so not to offend their leaders. In addition, other countries (including the United States and Italy,) have made great effort to avoid using the word “genocide” so not to upset the shaky alliance between the West and Turkey. What remains to be seen is how the Pope’s remarks will affect relations with moderate Muslim states, whether it will hurt relations in the long run, or whether it will fulfill the Pope’s important goal of promoting more religious peace and tolerance from either side.
By Bill Ades