In preparation for a special Mass commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide to be celebrated Sunday, Pope Francis received a delegation Thursday from the Armenian-Catholic Church.
“Tradition tells us that your people were the first to convert to Christianity in 301, and your 2,000-year history bears an admirable heritage of spirituality and culture, combined with an ability to recover from the many persecutions and trials to which it was subjected,” the Pope said.
Francis reflected that “the darkest forces can issue forth from the depths of the human heart capable of programming the systematic annihilation of one’s brother, considering him an enemy, an adversary or even an individual devoid of human dignity.”
“I think with sadness in particular of those areas like Aleppo, ‘the city of martyrs,’ that a hundred years ago were safe haven for the few survivors,” Francis said. “In recent times, the survival of all Christians there, not just Armenians, is endangered.”
The Pope invited his hearers to “cultivate a feeling of gratitude to the Lord, for being able to keep faith in Him even in the most difficult times.”
Francis also offered prayers that God would “hasten concrete gestures of reconciliation and peace among the nations that still fail to reach a reasonable consensus on the reading of such sad events.” The government of Turkey still rejects the idea of the Armenian Genocide, when some 1.5 million Armenians – more than half the Armenian population at the time – died in a systematic program of ethnic cleansing from 1915 to 1918. Turkey claims the deaths were due largely to disease and famine.
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.
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.
In April 2006, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio publicly invited Turkey to acknowledge the genocide and again in 2011 described the genocide as the “gravest crime of Ottoman Turkey against the Armenian people and the entire humanity.”
In 2013, Pope Francis called the Armenian massacre “the first genocide of the 20th century,” to which the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with a statement denouncing the Pope’s words: “The expressions of Pope Francis are absolutely unacceptable.”
On Sunday, Pope Francis will proclaim a 10th-century Armenian monk as a Doctor of the church when he celebrates a liturgy in Saint Peter’s Basilica with leaders and faithful of the Armenian Catholic Church.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome