Why the Pope’s comments on the Armenian Genocide caused outrage in the Turkish establishment

francis and erdogan
Pope Francis (left) meets with Turkish President Erdogan earlier this year.

Who would have thought that the humble words of a man who always seeks reconciliation between peoples and peace of mind could cause so much ado both on an international and political scale? Well, that’s what happened to Pope Francis during a Sunday Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica earlier this month when declaring the killings of Armenians as the first genocide of the 20th century, which consequently ignited Turkey’s anger.

The Pope’s words were thought of as a way of remembering the mass killings in Armenia perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire in WW1, which will be internationally commemorated on April 24th. During the war, the government led by the so-called ‘Young Turks’ feared that the Armenians would pledge allegiance to the Russians – they consequently decided to deport and murder thousands and thousands of Armenians in a restless effort to eradicate any weak spot in the empire. Allegedly, around one and a half million Armenians died in what history refers to as the Armenian genocide.

Turkey, the modern descendant of the Ottomans, is on the other hand very careful with such words, only referring to what happened as mass killings as Turkey still claims not to agree with the enormity or the scope of these events. The word ‘genocide’ literally means the systematic destruction of all or of a significant part of racial, ethnic or religious groups – there have been several genocides in history, from colonial times up to the modern era, ranging from atrocities by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

The ‘Young Turks’ were eager for a modern and westernized government, which would have ushered in a new enlightened society for the Turks. It turned out they were xenophobic and wouldn’t let other ethnicities be part of the reforming plan, thus planning the extermination of all minorities, mainly the Armenians. Genocides are indeed embarrassing facts to remember – they are a burden on a society’s dark past. They will only be covered in dust, yet never erased – Turkey is in fact showing its unease on the matter and that it is not ready to revive the past.

Turkey’s reaction to the Pope’s words could be seen as a bit aggressive and untoward – from a political perspective, some may see Erdogan’s maneuver to change the Constitution and label everything as religious wars between Christians and Muslims in an attempt to gain more consensus in lieu of the upcoming elections next June. The majority of Turks agree on the negation of the genocide and only support a much milder version of what happened. At least according to Fatih Akin, a German movie director of Turkish origins at the European Film Festival in Lecce where he presented his latest creation on the Armenian genocide, Erdogan is trying to divert the imminent centenary of the genocide by belittling it and drawing the attention on other matters.

Regardless of politics, what happened in 1915 should not create tensions over the deaths of millions of people. Genocide is just a word and we should all pay respect – Pope Francis’s role, on the other hand, is not political, yet it is not only spiritual either. People should really come together, lest anyone forget our dark pages in history.

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Luca Trovò is an English-Italian freelance translator in London. He has a BA in Foreign Languages and Literature from the University of Bergamo, Italy, and an MA in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Westminster in London. He is also an editor and translator for Equilibriarte. You can contact him and find out more on his Linkedin profile.

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