In over 20 years working as a journalist, I don’t think I’ve ever covered a story where one word counted so much. Genocide.
Prior to Pope Francis’ Mass on April 12th to mark the 100th anniversary of the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, we debated the question all week. Will Pope Francis use the word genocide? I spoke to Vatican journalists, I spoke to Armenian officials and I spoke to Turkish journalists and every last one of them told me they did not think he would.
I was a bit perplexed. Pope Francis is known for being forthright and not beating about the bush.
My colleague Nicole Winfield, AP Rome Bureau Chief, pointed out to me that when Pope Francis was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires he was close to the Armenian community. Nicole and I confirmed this when we were invited to a gala dinner a few nights ahead of the mass with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and had a brief moment to chat with the President.
But speaking to Turkish colleagues inside Saint Peter’s just before the Mass, they convinced me that the Pope would not do it. They said it would create too many problems with Turkey and that if he did say “genocide” the reaction by the Turkish government would be fast and furious.
The Mass started. Pope Francis came straight down the center aisle of Saint Peter’s walked up to the altar and delivered a greeting that blew us all away.
He started out…
“…today we are experiencing a sort of genocide created by a general and collective indifference….in the past century our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies. The first, which is widely considered “the first genocide of the 20th century” struck your own Armenian people, the first Christian nation, as well as Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks. Bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”
I was standing with AP cameraman Luigi Navarra and two colleagues from Turkey on a platform for TV cameras at the side of St. Peter’s Basilica. We looked at each other in shock and muttered, “he said it!!”. I rifled through my purse for my cell phone and squatted down between the tripods to call Nicole Winfield – “Do you hear that???!!!” I whispered. “I’ve just filed an alert,” she responded calmly.
So then I frantically took notes on the rest of the speech and began to tweet.
The Pope went on:
“The remaining two were perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism. And more recently there have been 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.”
I tweeted “#PopeFrancis does not mince words. Refers to “genocide” 2 times in mass with Armenians
The Pope continued passionately, “It seems 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. We have not learned yet that war is madness”
As he headed towards his conclusion, Pope Francis said:
“Dear Armenian Christians, today, with hearts filled with pain but at the same time with great hope in the risen Lord, we recall the centenary of that tragic event, that immense and senseless slaughter whose cruelty your forebears had to endure. It is necessary, and indeed a duty, to honour their memory, for 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!”
WOW! Talk about calling a spade a spade. Talk about not mincing words. This Pope doesn’t mess around.
The Turkish government doesn’t mess around either. Shortly after the Mass, the Turkish government summoned the Vatican Ambassador to Turkey for a dressing down and then the Turkish ambassador to the Vatican was recalled for consultations. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted “The Pope’s statement, which is far from historic and legal truth, is unacceptable.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Pope Francis not to repeat his “mistake” of calling the slaughter of the Armenians a “genocide.”
According to the English language Turkish daily the “Hurriyet Daily News”, Erdogan told a meeting of the Turkish Exporters Assembly on April 14th:
“Whenever politicians, religious functionaries assume the duties of historians, then delirium comes out, not fact. Hereby, I want to repeat our call to establish a joint commission of historians and stress we are ready to open our archives. I want to warn the pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him.”
(A little aside here, I covered the Pope’s visit to Turkey and his meeting with President Erdogan in November 2014 – see blog post: Pope Francis in Turkey- Post 1 and even back then the relationship between Erdogan and Pope Francis did not seem very warm and fuzzy) Nevertheless, Erdogan referring to Pope Francis’ comment as “delirium” is a clear indication of his government’s anger.
So back to the question of the Armenian “genocide”. I have never studied the history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 20th century so I will just quote what my colleague Nicole wrote in the AP wire:
“Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century.”
Turkey denies that is was a genocide and both the United States and Italy have not ever officially recognized the massacre as a genocide.
So what does the word “genocide” mean and what qualifies as a genocide? A little fishing around the web and I have come up with the official United Nations’ definition from 1948
“Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
This definition seems a bit vague to me. How many people have to die to call it a genocide?
So, why so much sensitivity about what seems in the case of the killing of the Armenians an obvious genocide. During the Mass I was struck by the powerful words of some of the Armenian leaders present. Aram I, Head of the Armenian Apostolic Church stood on the altar in St. Peter’s and declared forcefully in English: “According to International law, genocide is a crime against humanity and international laws spells out clearly that condemnation, recognition and reparation of genocide are closely interconnected.” Earning the applause of the hundreds of people gathered in the Basilica.”
Ah, reparations. That is a whole other issue that I will not get into.
And if that was not enough for one papal event, following the Mass, the Pope issued a message to all Armenians in which he said:
“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 horrors, which offends against God and human dignity. Today too, in fact, these conflicts at times degenerate into unjustifiable violence, stirred up by exploiting ethnic and religious differences. All who are Heads of State and of International Organizations are called to oppose such crimes with a firm sense of duty, without ceding to ambiguity or compromise.”
So not only was the Pope unabashedly using the word “genocide” he also called on other heads of state to do so. Is the Pope accusing the US, Italy and other nations of ambiguity and compromise? It certainly sounds like it.
Following the Mass, I hopped in a taxi with Luigi and Nicole and rushed from the Vatican to Via Veneto where we had an interview with the Armenian President at the plush Baglioni Hotel. The Armenians were packed in the lobby clearly rejoicing in the moment. Up in his suite, President Sargsyan was positively glowing., “I think that Pope Francis has delivered a powerful message to the international community,” he told us, adding “We are getting messages from Armenians all over the world who are touched by this message. They consider that this 100 years long fight for recognition is still going on, but there are already significant results.”
I wanted to write a blog post on this topic earlier, but I have not had the energy and feel unable to tackle the full question. I exchanged emails with a Turkish friend who said while he personally believes the slaughter of the Armenians was genocide and needs to be recognized as such, there are many delicate issues among which the question of reparations and the intermingling of Turkish and Armenian blood. He wrote me the following:
“Another factor is that there is so much mixed Turkish and Armenian blood among present day Turks. For example, my grandmother’s family adopted an Armenian orphan during that time period in Erzurum where my mother’s family is from. She was found naked in a field and they knew she was Armenian because of the Christian tattoo on her arm. She was adopted by the family and raised as a Muslim but was found one day burying a necklace with the Armenian cross in the backyard for fear of someone finding it – years after being adopted around age 8. So she had a sense of the danger. We are not the only family that has mixed blood of this nature. I think somehow admitting the genocide interacts with not wanting to reveal the mixed blood.”
Since this blog is about being a mother, I would like to conclude on this moving story of this child. The debate has been about a word, but as usual it is the children who are always caught in the middle. My heart goes out to that young girl with her little Christian tattoo on her arm. She was adopted by a kind and generous Muslim family, yet was still frightened enough to bury her necklace with a cross in the yard.