By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach


In times of grave crisis, when it seems that the world has gone insane, when violence reigns, taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents, and more often than not, the ideologically crazed perpetrators claim to be killing in the name of religion, then conventional political discourse seems to ring hollow. Crisis management at urgently convoked special summits yields well-meaning declarations and peace plans, but the bloody conflicts spread. In such critical junctures it may be that institutional actors from a loftier stance enter the stage and speak out, to assert a moral authority capable of emboldening political forces to think and act on a higher level.

This is what has occurred on the occasion of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.  True, Armenians worldwide felt a stone had been lifted from their hearts, as one after another leading figure and institution acknowledged it was a genocide. True, the same Armenians felt disappointed (if not betrayed) when the American president failed to do so. Although of undeniable historic value, such events are not self-contained.

The breakthroughs on April 24 reverberate with strategic implications, and they are not limited to the presence, however important, of heads of state, like Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande and others in Yerevan. What made certain commemorations strategically relevant was that the words spoken carried with them an intention to alter the course of political action in the here and now.

It began with the intervention of Pope Francis on April 12, who, celebrating a mass at Saint Peter’s in Rome in the Armenian rite, spoke out on the genocide. Not only did he break political protocol by using the term genocide; he later explicitly appealed to political leaders to shed their own fears and call things by their proper name. The Pope opened his message bluntly with talk of a “third world war.” “On a number of occasions I have spoken of our time as a time of war, 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.”

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Thus, while commemorating the victims of the 1915 genocide, he transformed the meaning of that criminal event into a powerful symbol of the evil that threatens human civilization today, an evil that demands a moral response.

The epicenter of the political crisis addressed by the Pope is the Middle East, the Holy Land for believers of the three monotheistic religions. Since the Arab uprisings engulfed Syria in 2011, that country has turned into a bloody battlefield. Sectors of the initially non-violent reform movements, brutally repressed, turned, in part, into armed opposition forces, first as the Free Syrian Army, then as a myriad of separate militias, allied to or controlled by various terrorist agencies, from Al Qaida, to Al Nusra, to the so-called Islamic State (ISIL or ISIL). Iraq, already decimated by years of war and civil strife, was engulfed by the ISIS advance and the conflict, with its sectarian Shi’ite/Sunni character, spilled over into neighboring Lebanon. The hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of civilians fleeing the violence have found refuge in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, which massive influx has strained political stability and overwhelmed social infrastructure capacities to the breaking point.

From the beginnings in 2011-2012, Turkey has been among those, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab Gulf states, who fomented the violence by providing political, logistical, financial and military support to the armed jihadists. It should be recalled that the first militant Syrian opposition groups, not only the political leadership, but also the Free Syrian Army, set up shop in exile, in Turkey. Massive funding for the ISIS has flowed from Saudi Arabia, through so-called private channels or charities, allowing the Saudi authorities to plead innocent, but the ISIS ideology is fully coherent with that of the Wahabites, the sect which dominates Saudi Arabia. Turkey, with its allegedly secular profile, has consistently backed the Islamist insurgents, allowing jihadists from abroad to use Turkey as their transit land to enter the war. To the present day, jihadists reportedly cross into Syria and Iraq through the Turkish borders.

The magnitude of the damage wrought on the entire region over the past four years is almost incalculable. Syria has been destroyed, its population massacred or forced to flee. Official estimates reckon that more than 220,000 have perished, 4 million Syrians have fled abroad and 7.6 million are internally displaced. Iraqis who had fled the civil war at home and found safety in Syria have been forced to flee again, but cannot return to their former homes. ISIS has taken control over major urban centers in Iraq including Mosul, the second largest city after Baghdad.

Although the entire civilian population in all affected areas is suffering, it is the Christian communities that have been singled out for elimination by the ideologically-crazed ISIS murderers. In their mad frenzy to destroy anything and everything that does not qualify in their perverted view as “Islamic,” the ISIS have obliterated ancient cities, like Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq, have massacred minority Yazidis and have demolished one Christian church after another.

From the standpoint of official Christendom, this continuing jihadist rampage threatens the very existence of the religious community which traces its heritage back to the Holy Land of Jesus Christ. It cannot be excluded that, if not stopped, the ISIS would seek to conquer (and destroy) all the non-Islamic holy places in the region, including those in Jerusalem and major sites in Lebanon and Jordan. The Saudi royal family has become aware of the danger that ISIS would eventually occupy Mecca and Medina, not to destroy them but to control them as centers of their self-styled Caliphate.

Thus it should not come as a surprise that the first to speak out in defense of Christendom should be the Vatican. Armenians and others paid special attention to the Pontiff’s statements on the genocide, and with good reason: he was officiating at a mass in commemoration of the genocide victims, and in the Armenian rite. Yet his message was not limited to that very important theme. It was as if Pope Francis were raising the Armenian catastrophe to an emblem of the martyrdom of today’s Oriental Christians. In an address to the Armenians, Pope Francis stated, “It is the responsibility not only of the Armenian people and the universal church to recall all that has taken place, but of the entire human family, so that the warnings from this tragedy will protect us from falling into a similar horror, which offends against God and human dignity. Today too,” he went on, “in fact, these conflicts at times degenerate into unjustifiable violence, stirred up by exploiting ethnic and religious differences.” He made clear he was demanding action: “All who are Heads of State and of International Organizations are called upon to oppose such crimes with a firm sense of duty, without ceding to ambiguity or compromise.”

Without this papal intervention, well in advance of the April 24 date, it is difficult to imagine that the official commemorations in Germany (and Austria) would have taken the shape they did. After weeks of heated debate within and among political parties as well as in the public domain, punctuated by Turkish diplomatic efforts to ban any talk of genocide, institutional leaders took courageous steps. The first to speak were spiritual leaders, then the politicians.

On April 23, at an ecumenical service in the Berlin Cathedral officiated by leaders of the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany, as well as the Armenian Apostolic, the Greek Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox churches, the persecution of Christians today was the dominant theme. Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) Prof. Dr. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, after admitting the EKD’s inaction in 1915, added, “The acknowledgement of one’s own guilt cannot be separated from responsibility for the present.” In light of human rights and religious freedom, “we think today of all people, Christians, Jews and Muslims who are victims of ethnically or religiously motivated violence in the Near East and everywhere. The 1915 genocide,” he said, “and the German crime of the Shoah admonish us that there is no alternative to coexistence of cultures and religions, and that the notion of religious or ethnic territories with one official religion, imposed through force, is a dreadful error.”

Reinhard Cardinal Marx, head of the German Bishops Conference, opened his sermon with alarming words: “The history of mankind can also be written as the history of evil, as an accumulation of atrocities and crimes, of violence and murder. New pages are added daily to the chronicle of inhumanity.” After addressing the genocide a century ago, when Christians were victims of emerging nationalisms based on the ideology of homogeneity, Cardinal Marx returned to the present. “In the Middle East of our time too it is above all minorities who are persecuted. One of the desert camps the Armenians were transported to was near Mosul – the city the Christians were driven out of last summer by the so-called ‘Islamic State’. The Near East,” the Cardinal continued, “seeks a new order. Christians and other minorities are being expelled as in the past in the sense of ethnic and ideological cleansing – in Iraq, in Syria and elsewhere.” He concluded with an appeal: “Let us in this hour of commemoration pose the question to ourselves: are we here in Germany and in Europe immune to making ourselves once again guilty of indifference and insensitivity towards those suffering?”

Prior to this sermon, Maria Kaplan sang Gabriel Aydin’s The Cry of the Syriac People in Aramäic, which begins, “How many wars must we still bear, how long will we be persecuted, because Thy name is on our foreheads?”

This call for the courage to be honest returned in the liturgical intercession, when the priest appealed to God: “Let not the victims of atrocities be forgotten. Open the hearts of those who deny what occurred and make all ready for reconciliation.” And, further on, with world leaders in mind: “We pray to you for the powerful and influential: grant them courage to intervene for religious freedom and solidarity. Strengthen honesty and incorruptibility. Awaken responsibility for the protection of minorities.”

On April 24, German parliamentarians held a debate on “The Deportation and Massacre of the Armenian People 100 Years Ago” during which speakers for the governing coalition (CDU/CSU and SPD) and the opposition (Green Party and the Left) presented motions on the genocide. And several drew the parallels to the current situation. In opening the session Bundestag President Norbert Lammert said, “Today, too, people are the victims of persecution for political, ethnic and religious reasons, including thousands of Christians.” He lauded Turkey for its willingness to take in refugees: “By accepting well over a million refugees, Turkey is providing humanitarian assistance, which is too seldom honored and puts some in Europe top shame” (– a reference to countries reluctant to welcome refugees.) “In no way whatsoever,” he added, “do we forget this willingness to take responsibility in the present when we call for an awareness of also taking responsibility for the country’s own past.”

The darker side of Turkey’s role in the ongoing Mideast crisis emerged in remarks made by opposition parliamentarian Ulla Jelpke of the Left Party. Eyewitness reports from 1915-1916, she said, inevitably conjure up images of the present. “There, where the death marches of the Armenian people ended 100 years ago in the Syrian desert, today the butchers of the so-called Islamic State and Al-Nusra rule. Christians whose forefathers fled to Syria as survivors of the genocide are again today taking flight. Churches are being set ablaze, women are being enslaved.” And Turkey is involved: “The jihadist murder gangs cross the Turkish borders unhindered. They receive logistical help, munitions and even military cover from Turkey.” Charging the German government, that it is aware of all this, she suggested its sole aim seemed to be to keep its NATO partner Turkey on its side, no matter what that meant for Armenians or Kurds – much in the same fashion a diplomat of Imperial Germany had spoken of the need to protect its alliance with the Ottoman Empire, regardless of the toll on the Armenians. She concluded urging the government to “speak clearly with Erdogan and his government about 1915 and about the present.”

Another parliamentarian who made the connection between Turkey’s denialism and subsequent atrocities was Green Party Chairman Cem Özdemir, himself of Turkish descent. Had Turkey recognized the genocide and worked through its history, he said, “then the 1938 massacre of the Alevis in Dersim would not have taken place, then the Greeks would not have had to suffer pogroms on September 6-7, 1955, and perhaps the dirty war against the Kurds might not have occurred.”

Thus, not only implicitly, the message delivered in Berlin over the two days was straightforward: denialism opens the way to repetition of similar acts, not only in theory but in practice. Conversely, if Turkey were to recognize the genocide, that would — or should — imply a political shift in Ankara’s stance towards the catastrophe engulfing the region.

So much for reflections on the political considerations that may have shaped the commemorations. How Turkey will respond is another question, and an open one. Despite the hysterical reactions from Ankara, from recalling ambassadors to blasting Pope Francis for uttering “nonsense” and swearing never to “forget or forgive” the words of German President Gauck, etc., that may not be definitive. Such outbursts and diplomatic antics seem to have lost their effectiveness. Germany has been and remains Turkey’s leading ally in Europe. Much will depend on how the process initiated in Berlin will unfold. Formally speaking, the various motions will go through committees, which can convene hearings with experts etc., to elaborate their contents, and a resolution should be put to a vote in the near future. As the initiators of the debate have reiterated, “there is no turning back” as far as the recognition of genocide is concerned. More important will be the way in which the German political class will follow through on its commitment to work through the past German-Ottoman alliance together with its contemporary Turkish allies, as part of the process leading to Turkish recognition, and all that implies for its role in the turbulent Middle East. The “third world war” which the Pope has named, albeit “piecemeal,” is dictating the urgency of action.

(Note: The quotations from speeches have been translated by the author from official transcripts, with the exception of the texts of the Pope’s addresses and statements, which are available in authorized English versions.)


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