ROME — Pope Francis on Sunday described the World War I-era slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks as the first genocide of the 20th century, igniting a diplomatic confrontation with Turkey, which summoned the Vatican’s ambassador to condemn the pontiff’s remarks.
Francis, who made the comments at a Mass for the centenary of the start of the mass killings, and in a later message to all Armenians, repeated his stance that the seemingly piecemeal global violence of the 21st century represented a “third world war.”
He also described his frustration with what he considers global indifference toward the persecution and killing of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere, especially by militants with the Islamic State.
“Today, too, we are experiencing a sort of genocide created by general and collective indifference,” Francis said.
In broaching the term genocide, Francis quoted from a 2001 declaration by Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin II, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s supreme patriarch, in which the two leaders called the Armenian slaughter a campaign of extermination that was “generally referred to as the first genocide of the 20th century.”
Yet Vatican diplomats have been deliberately prudent in avoiding the inflammatory term, so in using it during the Mass on Sunday, before an audience that included the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, Francis clearly intended to provoke a response.
He equated the fate of the Armenians with the genocides orchestrated by the Nazis and the Soviets under Josef Stalin, while also condemning “other mass killings, like those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi, and Bosnia.”
“It seems that humanity is incapable of putting a halt to the shedding of innocent blood,” he said. “It seems that the human family has refused to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today, too, there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few, and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand by.”
Francis said it was a duty of everyone not to forget the “senseless slaughter” of the estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Ottoman Turks from 1915 to 1923. “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it,” the pope added.
Turkey has long denied accusations of genocide and argues that a large number of Turks were also killed during and after the First World War, when Armenians sided with Russian and Western forces in hopes of claiming an independent homeland in eastern Turkey as the Ottoman Empire was dying.
Many Armenians have long demanded that Turkey acknowledge that about 1.5 million of their forebears were killed in a systematic genocide. More than 20 countries have passed parliamentary bills recognizing the killings as genocide.
On Sunday, Turkish officials in Ankara, the capital, summoned Archbishop Antonio Lucibello, the Vatican’s ambassador to Turkey, and notified him of their government’s “grave disappointment and sadness” over the pope’s remark.
The officials said the statements were “away from historical facts” and dismissive of the deaths of non-Christians in the country during the same historical period, according to a government official who asked to be quoted anonymously, citing diplomatic protocol.
On Twitter, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu dismissed the pope’s comments as baseless. “It is not possible to accept the pope’s statement, which is far from any legal or historical reality,” he wrote. “Religious authorities are not the places to incite resentment and hatred with baseless allegations.”
Francis visited Turkey last November, partly to bolster the standing of his friend and ally, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, leader of the country’s Orthodox Christians. He also met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Ankara hoped to signal a joint campaign against Islamophobia.
On Sunday, Turkish officials portrayed the pope’s latest remarks as a betrayal.
“The pope’s statement is surprising and disappointing, especially following his message of dialogue during his visit last November,” said an official from the prime minister’s office. “A one-side statement that only acknowledges the suffering of Christians and ignores the suffering of the Muslims at that time. These kinds of statements only damage and hinder the process of reconciliation.”
The issue of reconciliation between Turkey and the country’s Armenian population remains delicate. When Erdogan was the prime minister, he suggested an intergovernmental history commission be formed between Turkey and Armenia, and perhaps a third country, to assess the claims.
Last year, Erdogan stopped short of using the word “genocide” but, in an unprecedented move, he offered condolences to the grandchildren of those who lost their lives in the events of 1915, in a statement released in nine languages.