Pontiff expected to avoid use of word genocide to avoid rift between Turkey and Vatican,
Pope Francis is expected to avoid using the word “genocide” when he visits a memorial to the massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians this weekend.
His notable change of tone from a statement last year that the wholesale killing of Armenian Christians between 1915 and 1923 was the “first genocide of the 20th century” is aimed at avoiding a repeat of the ensuing diplomatic rift between Turkey and the Vatican.
The pontiff’s three-day visit to Armenia, which begins on Friday, includes prayers at Tsitsernakaberd, widely known as the genocide memorial and museum, in the capital, Yerevan.
The official programme for the trip, released this week by the Vatican, refers to Tsitsernakaberd as the “memorial of the massacres”. The pope’s spokesperson said the Armenian phrase Medz Yeghern, which translates as the “great evil” or the “great catastrophe”, was preferred to genocide.
“Why is there an obsession to use the word ‘genocide’ and ask about it in all the questions?” Federico Lombardi asked journalists at a briefing on the trip this week.
“We know what happened. None of us is denying that there were horrible massacres. We recognise this. We are going to the memorial precisely to remember this but we don’t want this to become a trap of political and ideological discussions,” he said.
The phrase Medz Yeghern has been used by some world leaders, including Barack Obama.
After the pope explicitly referred to events in Armenia a century ago as a genocide, Turkey withdrew its envoy to the Vatican for 10 months.
Despite Turkey’s vehement rejection of the label – and its fury at other countries’ use of the word – president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has acknowledged the mass killings had “inhumane consequences”.
Turkey continues to deny that Armenians were systematically targeted in the wave of killing which began in April 1915. Troops of the Ottoman Empire also carried out rape, torture, the abduction of children, forced conversion to Islam and the destruction of churches over eight years. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee.
A century on, the population of Armenia is 3.3 million, with three times as many people of Armenian descent living outside the country. The diaspora includes 1.5m in the US, 2.3m in Russia, and 18,000 in the UK.
Twenty-two countries have formally recognised the events of a century ago as a genocide, although Obama has avoided the word.
Lombardi told reporters that the purpose of the papal visit was to demonstrate Pope Francis’s closeness to the people of Armenia, and to cement ties with the Orthodox church, to which the vast majority of Armenians belong. Less than 10% of the population are Roman Catholics.
As well as visiting the Tsitsernakaberd memorial, the pope is scheduled to hold an open-air mass in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, and visit the Khor Virap monastery near the closed border with Turkey.
Francis has also appeared to row back on an earlier description of the persecution and killing of Christians in the Middle East as “a form of genocide”.
Speaking to students in Rome at the weekend, he said: “I want to say clearly, I do not like it when one speaks of a genocide of Christians, for instance in the Middle East. This is reductionism. The truth is a persecution which leads Christians to have fidelity to the consistency of their faith.”
Last year, when visiting Bolivia, he said: “We are dismayed to see how in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world many of our brothers and sisters are persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith in Jesus. In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place, and it must end.”