Pope Boosts Armenia’s Efforts to Get Genocide Recognition


VATICAN (Combined Sources) — Armenia’s efforts to promote greater awareness of the massacre of 1.5 million of its people by Turkey during the fall of the Ottoman empire were given a dramatic boost on Sunday by the pope’s description of the atrocities as “the first genocide of the 20th century” days ahead of the centenary of the event.

Pope Francis used a special mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to mark the anniversary, and referred to “three massive and unprecedented tragedies” of the last century.

“The first, which is widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century, struck your own Armenian people,” the pontiff said. “Bishops and priests, religious women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”

Historians estimate that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed in state-organized violence between 1915 and 1922. Russia, France and about 20 other countries recognize it as genocide.

Turkey immediately summoned the papal ambassador to Ankara to express its displeasure and later recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. The Foreign Ministry said the pope had contradicted his message of peace and dialogue during a visit to Turkey in November.

Expressing “great disappointment and sadness”, it called the message discriminatory because it only mentioned the pain suffered by Christian Armenians, and not Muslims and other religious groups.

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Strictly speaking, it was not the first such announcement. In 2001 Pope John Paul II and Karekin II, the leader of the Armenian Apostolic church, used identical language to that used by Pope Francis on Sunday. The original statement, however, was issued in Echmiadzin, the Armenian equivalent of the Vatican, rather than in Rome.

Analysts said the timing was also highly significant, coming so close to the April 24 commemoration event in Yerevan and around the world. Turkey has infuriated Armenians by choosing to mark the centenary of the wartime Gallipoli landings on exactly the same date, a move deliberately designed to overshadow remembrance of the genocide. Gallipoli has never before been commemorated on that day.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also ignored an invitation from the Armenian president, Serge Sargisian, to come to Yerevan. The Armenian government is expected to welcome the statement when Sargisian, who attended the mass, returns from Rome.

“This is the first time a mass was dedicated to the Armenian genocide victims in St. Peter’s,” said commentator Ara Tadevosyan. “The pope’s acknowledgement that ours was the first genocide of the 20th century is very important. It’s another sign that the civilized world is accepting what happened to us despite all the pressure from Turkey.”

The pontiff’s decision to bracket the mass killing of Armenians with the crimes perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism gives the Vatican’s “highest sanction” to genocide recognition, said Theo van Lint, a professor of Armenian studies at the University of Oxford. “I think it’s very important to realize he gave space to the leaders, the heads of the Armenian church and Armenian Catholics, to fully give their view of events. It’s very clear that the pope accepts that it is a genocide.”

The pope was joined by Karekin II, Sargisian, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilica Aram I and other dignitaries. Allowing Armenian leaders to speak in St Peter’s Basilica was described as a “strategic move” by Van Lint.

Pope Francis also declared a 10th-century Armenian monk, St. Gregory of Narek, a “doctor of the church.” The mystic and poet is celebrated for his writings, some of which are still recited in Armenian churches.

President Serge Sargisian was present at the mass, along with a high-level political entourage. After the mass, he expressed his pleasure at the service and expressed Armenia’s long history with Italy.

“ I would like to thank our compatriots in Italy whose decades-long efforts and creative activities have made them an important part of the country and whose everyday dedication helps keep the prestige of Armenian people high, neutralize anti-Armenian activities and contribute to the further development of Armenian-Italian ties,” he said.

“It is also no accident that I am visiting Italy and the Holy See on the eve of the key Armenian Genocide Centennial events which are to start in just a few days. The Holy See and Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, five Italian provinces and 60 city councils have recognized the Armenian Genocide which we regard not only as a manifestation of solidarity with the Armenian people, but also as loyalty to universal values. It is very important to us that Pope Francis, the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, will preside at Solemn Mass for the faithful of the Armenian Rite at Saint Peter’s Basilica. We are deeply grateful to His Holiness Pope Francis for the idea of this unprecedented mass which is taking place two weeks before the canonization of the Armenian Genocide victims by the Armenian Apostolic Church, thereby symbolizing the Christian world’s solidarity with our people.”

Sargisian continued, “For us, the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide means not only the condemnation of the villains who planned and carried out the first genocide of the 20th century — one of the most terrific crimes that has ever been committed against humanity. All our endeavors are not solely aimed at perpetuating the memory of our innocent victims, our grandmothers and grandfathers, restoring justice and the rights of their descendants. Our fight is first of all aimed at returning to the civilized world and humanity, the greatest civilizational values – love and happiness, belief and trust, hope and warmth – of which our world fell short of as a consequence of that terrific crime. Alessandro Manzoni, one of the greatest sons of the Italian people, very rightly put it that criminals are guilty of not only their crimes, but also of the entire evil which causes darkness to penetrate into their victims’ hearts.”

Also present in the Vatican were an Armenian delegation from New England.

Bryan Ardouny, the executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, said, “The Pope’s acknowledgment is of profound spiritual significance for the Armenian people in recalling the victims of the Armenian Genocide. It tells the world that they have not been forgotten and that this crime against humanity cannot be denied. Pope Francis’ message helps bring greater awareness to this human rights issue, which is a key element in helping to prevent future genocides.”

Assembly Board of Trustees Co-Chair Anthony Barsamian, Board Member Oscar Tatosian, Assembly Life Trustee Noubar Afeyan and Assembly Maine State Chair Gerard Kiladjian were at St. Peter’s for the mass.

“Today in the presence of our Holy Fathers, Armenians from throughout the world celebrated the Armenian rite Divine Liturgy together with all Roman Catholics at St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis welcomed us and took the holy Gospel of the Armenian Church and blessed us. He also elevated St. Gregory of Narek as the 36th Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. We are humbled by these acts of Christian and paternal unity demonstrating his love and respect for us,” stated Barsamian and Tatosian.

“Pope Francis affirmed that the Church of Rome condemns the denial of the Armenian Genocide and called on all heads of nations to formally recognize the crime of genocide committed against the Armenian people 100 years ago this April,” added Barsamian and Tatosian.

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