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Turkey Accuses Pope Francis of ‘Fueling Hatred’ by Referring to Armenian Genocide

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Turkey’s reaction to Pope Francis’s comments Sunday on the Armenian genocide was swift and resolute, as the country recalled its Vatican ambassador back to Ankara and denounced the Pope for instigating “hatred and animosity” by spreading “unfounded allegations.”

On Sunday the Pope celebrated Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica for faithful of the Armenian rite, commemorating the centenary of the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenian Christians at the hand of the Ottoman Turks. Francis referred to the event as an “immense and senseless slaughter” and called it “the first genocide of the twentieth century,” ending speculation whether the pontiff would risk alienating Turkey by using the term “genocide.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded via Twitter, claiming that the Pope’s words lacked legal and historical credibility.

Turkey had been pressuring the Vatican and others not to use the expression “genocide,” and the Pope’s decision to use the term confirmed what many suspected, namely that Francis had weighed the consequences but considered it paramount to forego diplomatic niceties and speak the truth. In his address he said that remembering and honoring the victims of the slaughter was “necessary, and indeed a duty,” because “whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester.”

“Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it!” he said.

Sunday’s Mass was attended by Armenian church leaders as well as President Serge Sarkisian, who praised the pope for calling things by their name and “delivering a powerful message to the international community.”

“The words of the leader of a church with 1 billion followers cannot but have a strong impact,” he told The Associated Press.

Armenians mark April 24, 1915, when several hundred Armenian intellectuals were rounded up, arrested, and later executed, as the start of the Armenian Genocide, which is generally understood to have extended to 1917. During that time, some 1.5 million Armenians – more than half the Armenian population at the time – died in a systematic program of ethnic cleansing.

Figures compiled by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies show that there were 2,133,190 Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1914 and only about 387,800 by 1922.

More than 20 countries recognize the slaughter as genocide, including the Pope’s native Argentina. The United States and the UK do not, however, as Turkey is also considered a NATO ally.

Nonetheless, in its annual report for 2014, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom returned Turkey to “Tier 2″ (the former “Watch List”). The report states that “the overall landscape for democracy and human rights has deteriorated significantly during the past year, including serious new restrictions on internet freedom, privacy, and media freedom, with troubling implications for freedom of religion or belief in Turkey. Based on these concerns, USCIRF places Turkey on Tier 2 in 2014.”

According to the report, the ten countries placed on Tier 2 are characterized by serious violations of religious freedom “perpetrated or tolerated by the government.”

The Armenians have been preparing a major commemorative event this month, which has entailed a vigorous campaign for greater public acknowledgment that the slaughter constituted genocide.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome


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