Pope Francis Issues Challenge to Turkey – and Germany

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By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — The news from Rome hit Germany like a thunderbolt. As soon as the Armenian rite mass on April 12 had ended, news media flashed headlines across their websites and radio waves. The evening news programs opened with the announcement that Pope Francis had commemorated the victims of the Armenian genocide, and in those words. Pinar Atalay, the Turkish-German anchorwoman on national TV, spoke against a backdrop photo of Istanbul, a city, she said, where Armenians and Turks had lived together for centuries until the First World War. Even a century later, she said, the term “Genocide“ is taboo in Turkey. Now the Pope has broken that taboo and put his finger on a sensitive wound. After she presented the facts of his speech, a background report with historical photographic documents informed viewers how up to 1.5 million Armenians had perished through massacres, deportations and starvation.

Pope Francis had come under direct pressure from Turkey prior to his mass at St. Peter‘s. Originally the Pontiff had planned to visit Armenia on April 24, but after Turkey’s ambassador to the Holy See Mehmet Pacaci officially protested, the Pope decided to celebrate the mass on April 12 in Rome. If the Turkish diplomat thought that he had thereby safeguarded the taboo, he was sadly mistaken.

The German media, which have previously displayed caution in their choice of words, appear to have been emboldened by the Pope’s example to sport headlines like “Pope Francis launches genocide accusations against Turkey.“ Coverage stressed the “politically explosive issue“ the Pope addressed and devoted attention to attempts to explain the reasons behind the official Turkish reactions, as melodramatic as they were pathetic.

But it is not only the Turkish reaction that captured attention in Germany. As ZdF, the second national TV channel reported, the Pope’s message will impact German politics at the highest level. German President Gauck had also received an invitation to Yerevan for April 24, but instead, according to a spokeswoman, “will take part in a church service [in Berlin]in commemoration of the suffering of Armenians and other Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire.“ To be noted: He will be the first German president to do so. What will he say on that occasion?

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On April 24 there is also to be a debate in the German Parliament (Bundestag) followed by a resolution. In 2005 that body issued a resolution which, though shying away from the word “genocide,“ did characterize the events as such and called for government support for serious treatment of the matter, including civil society activities and genocide education in the schools. That well intentioned document stands today as so many words on paper.

Now, on the centenary of the Genocide, political pressure has grown for the Bundestag to take more serious steps. A preliminary draft resolution reportedly did speak of genocide, which the opposition Green Party and the Left Party had demanded, and the ruling coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had accepted. But then, according to a ZdF report, the controversial term genocide was cut following pressure exerted by party leaders in the SPD and CDU, as well as from the Foreign Ministry. In response, others in both parties objected to what they saw as a political gesture to Turkey.

As for the Foreign Ministry, it told ZdF that “The government is of the view that the expulsion and murder of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire should be researched and evaluated in the context of a scientific debate“, which repeats a formulation from 2005 and dovetails with Turkish views. Rolf Hosfeld, scientific director of the Lepsiushaus in Potsdam, was quoted saying this was a case of “amnesia“ on the part of the government, considering that in the time of the German Empire the genocide was a well known fact to German officialdom. He urged that it be recognized and also be presented as part of the curriculum in schools here.

The Pope’s courageous move has indeed created a crucial dilemma for Germany. It is not a question merely of debating whether or not this or that political institution – for example in France or Sweden or the US — should recognize the genocide as a historical fact relating to Turkey and Armenians; since Imperial Germany was the wartime ally of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, it was fully aware of what occurred and its military and diplomatic personnel were, to varying degrees, complicit. This matter has been at the center of conferences and seminars in the country this year, which have seen researchers and historians thrashing out the issue. Now Pope Francis has raised the stakes, in that he has not only stated that it was a genocide, but has explicitly demanded that governments and organizations acknowledge it as such. Armenian President Serge Sargisian stressed the importance of the German position in remarks to the international press: “My request to members of the German parliament: address the issue, you are free in your decisions.” And he noted that Germany’s role is particularly significant in light of the exemplary manner in which it has dealt with its own responsibility in the Holocaust.

How will Berlin react? Some prominent genocide researchers believe the government will do everything possible to avoid tensions with Turkey, whether in consideration of geopolitical factors (the fight against IS, Turkey‘s role in NATO) or more pragmatically in pursuit of political acceptance among members of the German electorate. The Armenian lobby in Germany is numerically small whereas the Turkish lobby is a significant voting bloc.

In truth, it comes down to a moral question. And that is what the Pope has defined. Will Germany — with a government led by the CDU (a Christian party after all) and the SPD — capitulate to political pragmatism? Will the German President, himself a former clergyman, show less courage than the Pope?

 

 

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