Pope Francis and the Armenian slaughter he didn't call genocide


Pope Francis delivered a speech at St Peter’s in Rome to commemorate the slaughter of 1.5million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War, a century ago. He reportedly referred to the massacre as ‘genocide’, and the resulting global headlines suggest a diplomatic disaster for the Vatican: ‘Turkey anger at Pope Francis Armenian ‘genocide’ claim‘; ‘Pope Francis calls Armenian slaughter “genocide”‘; ‘Pope Francis uses ‘genocide’ to refer to mass killings of Armenians by Turks‘; ‘Pope Francis Calls Armenian Deaths “First Genocide of 20th Century”‘; ‘Turkey protests to Pope Francis after he brands Armenian killings “genocide”‘, and on, and on.

Turkey has recalled its ambassador to the Holy See, with hissy allegations of “unfounded claims”, insisting that the Armenians were casualties of a civil war. Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tweeted that the Pontiff was “out of touch” with “historical facts”. The furore is reverberating around the world, creating further tension between mosques and churches and between imams and bishops. Those who seek to foment division between civilisations aren’t especially attuned to denominational nuances: the Pope has insulted Muslims (once again). Christians are provoking the disciples of Mohammed with their objectionable statements and crass apprehensions of Islamic history. And so, today, millions of Muslims are distraught – not because they’ve ever been particularly disposed to the historic secular Turkish vision of the Caliphate (which is, of course, no caliphate at all), but because, once again, the Pope of Rome has spoken an unpalatable truth, and the Ummah will do what the Ummah has to do.

The thing is, Pope Francis didn’t actually say he believed that the massacre was genocide. Certainly, he said it was a “great evil”. But His precise words were:

This faith also accompanied and sustained people during the tragic experience one hundred years ago “in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century” (John Paul II and Karekin II, Common Declaration, Etchmiadzin, 27 September 2001). Pope Benedict XV, who condemned the First World War as a “senseless slaughter” (AAS, IX [1917], 429), did everything in his power until the very end to stop it, continuing the efforts at mediation already begun by Pope Leo XIII when confronted with the “deadly events” of 1894-96. For this reason, Pope Benedict XV wrote to Sultan Mehmed V, pleading that the many innocents be saved (cf. Letter of 10 September 1915) and, in the Secret Consistory of 6 December 1915, he declared with great dismay, “Miserrima Armenorum gens ad interitum prope ducitur” (AAS, VII [1915], 510).

So, the ‘G’-word did not emanate from the pen of Pope Francis, but from that of Pope John Paul II: “..in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century” is not an expression of moral agreement (though it may be), but of consensual historic perspective. You might wonder why Turkey didn’t recall its ambassador when Pope John Paul II used the word. Well, he also didn’t refer to the massacre of 1.5million Armenians directly as ‘genocide’, opting instead for the precise form of words quoted by Francis: “..in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century”.

Pope John Paul II didn’t fabricate this ‘general referring’ ex nihilo: like Pope Francis, he was simply acknowledging the fact that, generally, the Armenians suffered a genocide, and that is how it is perceived. Generally.

Which raises the question of why, when Pope John Paul II and Karekin II allude to Armenian genocide in 2001, Turkey didn’t recall its ambassador in a fit of pique and its foreign minister didn’t cast undiplomatic aspersions. It also raises the question of why the media portray Pope Francis as jumping into the Armenia controversy with leaded feet, while John Paul II’s identical form of words yielded the rather contrasted headlines: ‘Pope avoids Armenia controversy‘.