The Centennial of the Armenian Genocide & the Globalisation of Indifference I half-expected it to happen and I was not disappointed at all.
Over the past two years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has proven to be a man who does not squirm away from expressing his own mind. Indeed, he manifested this prophetic courage again a fortnight ago when he uttered the politically unutterable by referring to the Armenian genocide with the G-word. This was at a special holy mass held in the Armenian Catholic rite at St Peter’s Basilica in solidarity with the victims of the Armenian experiences of 1915-1922. And unlike many politicians who often tend to fudge their words or mix the expedient with the ethical, the Pope was being loyal to his friendships from the time he, as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was archbishop of Buenos Aires. After all, he had then referred to the Armenian ‘genocide’ on several occasions alongside three separate citations in his book On Heaven and Earth of 2010.
Indeed, as I have suggested to my colleagues, the mass at St Peter’s is one of the most effective public relations and media-friendly reminders of the centenary anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It stands on a special pantheon alongside - perhaps - Kim Kardashian’s visit to Armenia and the worldwide tour by the LA-based rock band System of a Down who have lobbied in favour of the recognition of the genocide since its formation in 1994. On the same pantheon would also be the latest recognition by Germany and Austria and the Resolution by the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
During the mass that he concelebrated with the Armenian Catholic patriarch and in the presence of the two highest Armenian Orthodox catholicoi (church leaders), Pope Francis expressed his gratitude to all those who helped alleviate the sufferings of Armenians during their affliction. He made special reference to Pope Benedict XV “who intervened before the Sultan Mehmet V to bring an end to the massacre of the Armenians”. In so doing, he reminded many of us of the new book Völkermord an den Armenian (The Armenian Genocide) by the German historian and author Michael Hesemann who revealed in painful detail and for the first time the content of never-before-published documents from the Vatican archives.
In fact, Benedict XV had also inscribed St Ephrem the Syrian in 1920 among the Doctors of the Universal Church, and so it was not unexpected when Pope Francis also made the 10th century Armenian mystic St Gregory of Narek the 36th Doctor of the Universal Church - a title that is reserved for those whose writings have served the universal church.
But Pope Francis’ statements caused a diplomatic furore in Ankara and resulted in the recalling by Turkey of its ambassador to the Holy See. For me, this is profoundly regrettable since it underlines that the pernicious denial of this genocide remains at the heart of the Turkish political establishment and affects not only the reactions of Turkish politicians but by osmosis those of other countries that are afraid to boldly state that such a genocide occurred under cover of WWI.
And what happened during those years is indescribably appalling. With the Ottoman Empire having lost the Balkans and on the verge of losing out its Arab territories too, it rounded up on the evening of 24 April 1915 - known as Red Sunday - 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and began executing what became a premeditated plan to annihilate the Armenian population of Anatolia - labelled for the first time then as a ‘crime against humanity’. Consequently, well over 1 million Armenians died, the Anatolian lands (of Eastern Turkey) were expunged from its Armenian inhabitants who had been living there since the Byzantine period and 2000 churches or monasteries were destroyed or confiscated too.
One such prominent victim, born in Kutahya and rounded up in Constantinople on this day, was Gomidas Vartabed. A priest recognised as the father of Armenian liturgical and folk music, he was among the few who were reprieved from death, but whose aching nightmare led him to lose his mind and spend the last twenty years of his life in asylums.
For the overwhelming majority of genocide scholars, historians, lawyers, journalists and novelists, including Turkish men and women like Taner Akçam, Fatma Müge Göçek or Fethiye Çetin and Elif Şafak, the actions of the Young Turks in Ottoman Turkey during those critical years amounted to genocide. The five criteria defined by the UN Genocide Convention of 1948 prove that such a wilful and systematic extermination of a whole people amounted to a crime against humanity that the jurist Raphael Lemkin defined in 1948 as genocide. This occurred through dispersion (deportations across the Syrian Desert), physical massacre and assimilation or Islamisation by force. In fact, not only do many international historians and scholars such as the International Association of Genocide Scholars acknowledge this genocide, Turkish civil society has also begun a gradual reconstruction of facts and many writers and university academics openly speak about the Armenian genocide today. As the Human Rights Association in Turkey indicated, denial is not just saying, “I didn’t do it.” Denial means to say, “We did it because they deserved it.”
However, the Turkish political establishment refutes without appeal that its predecessor Ottoman Empire was responsible for this crime. This is in part due to the fact that the ruling “Young Turk” movement came into contact with European ideas of nationalism and the concept that only a homogenous state can be a strong state. They came to believe that its multi-religious and multi-ethnic characters caused the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. They wanted to ‘heal’ this ‘weakness’ by eliminating all foreign elements - including the Christians who numbered 19% of the population in early 1914. Besides the Armenians, also Aramaic, Assyrian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christians were also persecuted and murdered during this same period.
Moreover, Turkey claims today that the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire conspired with Russia against their homeland. This might well have been the case with a small number of Armenians but the claim is vacuous on two levels. On the one hand, the majority of Armenians did not have any weapons for any insurrection. And more to the point, if this were truly the case, why did they kill innocent women and children too? And why didn't they spare the other non-Armenian Christian groups that were never under any such suspicion?
I would argue that Turkey avoids recognition due largely to its fear that such a move would lead to cases of reparation and restitution under International law. So genocide is downgraded into tehçir (deportation) and a crime against humanity is relegated to unintentional and collateral damage during WWI. However, this in my opinion remains a flawed rationale. "Recognition" is a defining word that embodies an ethical basis for accountability after a human rights crime. The issue of recognition is not an abstraction. It is about responsibility, social justice and repair in the aftermath of one of the most extensive human rights crimes of the modern era - alongside the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Turkey would do well to listen to its own ethically committed citizens who work hard for truth. The Turkish scholar and journalist Cengiz Aktar spoke for many of his fellow citizens when he wrote, “The Armenian genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land. Its curse will continue to haunt us as long as we fail to talk about, recognize, understand and reckon with it.”
In my opinion, Pope Francis did not simply evince bravery. Rather, and unlike many religious leaders, he spoke out the truth. In fact, he put it best when he reminded the faithful at St Peter’s Basilica, "Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it." Perhaps Turkey, let alone those who also help obfuscate this truth, should consider that we in our global village could only become people of the future if we are not afraid of the past.
On 23rd April, the Armenian Church canonised the martyrs of the Armenian genocide at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin in Armenia. At the same time, all the bells of all the Armenian churches worldwide began to peal 100 times in remembrance of the centennial of this genocide. Could Turks and Armenians turn this sombre anniversary into a kairosby choosing to move together beyond death and embrace life instead? Is it not the moment to help spare humanity further acts of genocide? As the grandson of genocide survivors myself, this for me is the true meaning of recognition - or more pointedly of liberation from the yoke of the past.
An edited version of this piece appeared in The Tablet weekly magazine last week