May 1, 2015


The Armenian genocide of 1915

Pope Francis stirred up a hornets’ nest on April 12 during his commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the deaths of a million and a half Armenians. He used the word “genocide,” which most historians accept, but which Turkey strongly denies. In retaliation, Turkey called its ambassador to the Holy See home for “consultations.”

On April 15, a vote in the European Parliament commended the pope’s statement and urged Turkey to accept the massacres as genocide.

So what’s this all about?

Armenia can boast that it was the first nation in the world to become officially Christian, which it did in 301 A.D., before Constantine legally tolerated Christianity in the Roman Empire. The Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew are credited with bringing Christianity to Armenia. Today, up to 95 percent of Armenians profess Christianity.

In 1915, beginning on April 24, the Turks tried to eliminate the Christians in the Ottoman Empire. They were rounded up and either killed or deported into the Syrian desert, where they died of hunger or disease.

On the occasion of the centenary of this mass killing, Oxford University Press has published a new book titled Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide, written by Thomas de Waal. He says that, in 1913, there were about 2 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. After the mass deportation, there was barely a tenth of that number, the rest either exiled or killed.

De Waal’s book concludes, somewhat reluctantly, that the killings do come under the United Nations Convention on Genocide, which was signed by 146 countries. That convention defines genocide as killing, inflicting physical or mental harm, forced adoption and eugenics when done “with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Turkey, though, has never admitted that it was genocide, claiming that the Armenians were deported because they were siding with Russia against the Ottomans during World War I. The U.N. convention did not include politically or ideologically motivated killings, it says. Besides, says Turkey, the extermination of so many Armenians was a side-effect of the deportation, not its intent, as specified in the definition.

During Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey last November, he refrained from referring to the massacre as “genocide” upon the request of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, he used the “g-word” on April 12, quoting a declaration signed in 2001 by St. John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin II of Etchmiadzin, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

That declaration noted that humanity had lived through “three massive and unprecedented tragedies the past century: the first, which is generally considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century,’ ” struck the Armenian people. The other two were those “perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism.”

Pope Francis told the Armenians that recalling “that tragic event, that immense and senseless slaughter, which your forefathers cruelly endured,” was a duty to honor their memory “because wherever memory does not exist, it means that evil still keeps the wound open.”

It’s regrettable that the pope’s comments have caused a diplomatic break with Turkey. We naturally hope that it will be temporary because, up until now, the Holy See has had warmer relations with Turkey than with any other Muslim country. The present government in Turkey is friendlier to Christians than those in the past.

Just two months ago, it approved the building of a new church, the first since the founding of the Turkish Republic by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. While former governments confiscated churches and turned them into mosques or museums, the present administration is returning Church properties.

We agree with Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni, who defended Pope Francis, telling the media that his remarks were not a provocation against Turkey. He said that the pope is concerned “about all the oppressed, the poor, the sick of every nation and religion. He has never separated the sufferings of Christians from the sufferings of others, as all of his pronouncements about the conflict bathing the Middle East have shown.”

We hope that this flap will soon blow over because the Holy See needs Turkey in our fight against Islamic terrorists.

—John F. Fink

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