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Pope Francis' acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide

Image of candles in memoriam of the Armenian Genocide
Photo: Mher Goganian

Today, April 24th, marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide. Continuing to live up to his nickname “the Great Reformer,” Pope Francis sparked controversy by calling the massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians a century ago under the regime Ottoman Empire “the first genocide of the 20th century.” The remarks prompted Turkey to accuse the Pope of inciting hatred.

While Turkey accepts the death of many Christian Armenians in clashes with Ottoman soldiers beginning in 1915, the country denies that hundreds of thousands were killed, and rejects the designation of genocide.

In a mass earlier this month, Pope Francis spoke of the World War I slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. Francis, who made the comments at a mass for the centenary of the start of the mass killings, emphasized his stance that the global violence of the 21st century represented a “third world war” (I personally believe this is a beautiful way of understanding the piecemeal violence that surges globally).

It is important to note that the Pope’s comments stem from what he considers a persecution and killing of Christians in the Middle East, especially by fighters for the Islamic State. While Christians have experienced persecution in Muslim states for centuries, but violence has increased for this religious minority since the growth of ISIS.

So, what exactly was the result of Pope Francis’s remarks?

Diplomatic furor

Following the Pope’s comments, Turkey recalled its Vatican ambassador for “consultations” mere hours after the service. Furthering tension, Turkey’s former ambassador to the Vatican, Kenan Gurosey, said in an interview that while, “This does not mean that our diplomatic ties with the Vatican are over,” in does indicate that “we [Turkey] do not approve” of the Pope's use of the word "genocide" was "a one-sided evaluation."

Armenia is grateful for the Pope’s recognition

The word “genocide” for the mass killing of Armenians during the Ottoman rule is controversial. While Turkey protests the use of the world, the Armenian Foreign Minister, Eduard Nalbandyan has appealed to Turkey to “make this step" in calling the deaths a genocide.” Nalbandyan further commented,"The Pope's statement are in this context of universal value. When Turkey is able to understand this, it will be able to understand what the International community and big personalities are saying."

Who is right? What happened preciously?

During and after World War I as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in what was then called the Ottoman Empire (and is now modern day Turkey). The Ottoman Turks historically discriminated against Armenians, but in 1915, leaders of the Turkish government set in motion a plan to expel and massacre Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire.

Armenia has long struggled to have the world officially recognize that it went through a genocide. But Turkey has said that fewer people died than Armenia claims, and that many Turks were also killed in intercommunal violence.

In recent years, the Armenian government and the Armenian diaspora (think Kim K) have asked countries around the world to formally label the 1915 events as a genocide. In turn, Turkey has pushed back against the allegations.

So, the significance of Pope Francis’s comments?

It’s a big deal whenever a Pope acknowledges something - but in particular, Pope Francis compared the Armenian genocide to those committed under Nazism and Stalinism. Strong words, certainly.

Further, while the comments about the Armenian genocide were sure to anger the modern Muslim country of Turkey, the Pope was not simply making a statement about the Armenian genocide, but mass killing generally. Francis said in Sunday’s service, "concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to bleed without bandaging it," extending his condemnation to human massacres, generally.


While most non-Turkish scholars agree that the killing of Armenians during the First World War was genocide - many countries, including the United States, do not use the word to describe the massacre (overall, only 21 countries recognize the killings as genocide).

Language is an important tool for understanding tragedy. What language is accepted is commonly understood - as definitions of words often influence understanding of events. What are your thoughts on Pope Francis’ announcement? Do you feel a religious leader should get involved in an arguably political issue? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!