While much of the world, including the United States, has consistently failed to recognize Turkey’s World War I massacre of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide, Pope Francis’s April 12 comments made crystal clear his and the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on the matter.
Francis referred to Turkey’s multi-year military campaign against the region’s Armenians as “the first genocide of the twentieth century,” during a Vatican City Armenian-rite mass, mirroring similar declarations issued by Pope John Paul II in 2011.
“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 forefathers had to endure,” Francis told an assembly of Armenian dignitaries and celebrants.
Turkish reactions to any such commentary tend to be swift and piercing, regardless of their target. Accordingly, Francis’s comments immediately drew the Ankara’s ire.
Turkey promptly recalled its ambassador to the Vatican and issued a statement condemning the remarks as factually inaccurate and politically motivated. “Genocide is a legal concept,” the statement reads. “Claims not fulfilling the requirements of law, even if they are attempted to be explained on the basis of widespread conviction, are bound to remain as slanders.”
Ankara went so far as to accuse the Pope of having been swayed by “the Armenian narrative.” Whatever ethno-religious lobby may or may not be behind Francis’ remarks, however, is decidedly Catholic. Although most Armenian victims were Eastern Orthodox Christians, a sizable portion was Catholic. Indeed, according to recently published statistics from Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian-language, Jesuit-run publication, just one-third of the more than 98,000 Catholic Armenians living in Turkey prior to 1915 survived the atrocities. Close to two hundred churches and missions were shuttered between 1915 and 1923. By 1923 only 20 churches and 10 missions remained in the country.
The frenzy that the Pope’s commentary unleashed is troubling, although not unexpected. After all, his comments are hardly controversial among historians, particularly those in the Ottoman and Turkish studies community. Although naysayers have indeed made their opinions known in the past, most academic debates concern the documentation of events and individual accounts – not nomenclature and the assigning of blame. David Simon, a political science professor at Yale University, told Newsweek that, among those who study the issue professionally, “There is a near consensus that the Armenian genocide was a genocide, or that genocide is the right word…”
Nonetheless, as of 2015, only about 25 countries officially recognize the events as genocide. The United States has all but recognized it in a sense — forty-three states have recognized it in some official capacity or another. Until the federal government does so in Washington, however, such moves ring hollow. Unfortunately, Turkey’s strategic role as a key partner of the United States and its allies on critical issues across the Middle East and beyond means that few leaders are willing to jeopardize the relationship over something many see as trivial.
The deeper trouble stems from the fact that modern Turkey has made Armenian genocide denial a core part of its national identity.
It wasn’t always this way, though. In the period following the war, few doubted the fate that befell Armenians in Anatolia — even fewer dared express such opinions publicly. The shift from acknowledgement to denial wasn’t an immediate result of the Ottomans losing the war either. Indeed, in 1919, the Turkish administration hanged a local governor for his involvement and tried and sentenced others to death in absentia.
That willingness to acknowledge the atrocities for what they were stems from the relationship between the public and the genocide’s architects. The genocide itself was orchestrated and led by what was effectively a shadow government, the Committee on Union and Progress (previously known as the Young Turks), which had seized power in a coup several years earlier. This group viewed Armenians, who had been struggling for independence from Turkey for some time, as an “existential threat” that needed to be neutralized through deportations and executions.
The Ottoman collapse after World War I, however, laid the groundwork for a dramatic change in Turkey’s relationship with its past. The “Turkification” efforts of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the Republic of Turkey, relied heavily on a reimaging of the country’s Ottoman past that emphasized its Turkish elements while downplaying, and sometimes even erasing, parts of its ethno-national diversity. The 1.5 million Armenian dead were slowly swept under the rug.
Turkey then has an obvious interest in maintaining the status quo. Ankara views the country’s history as a key component of national identity and, therefore, unity and stability in a time of increasing regional and domestic turmoil.
Francis’ comments may demonstrate that some in the international community have the courage to stand up to Ankara, but Turkish intransigence will not cease until such sentiment reaches a critical mass. Turkey will continue to pressure world powers to avoid using “genocide” to describe the events, thereby eluding the fallout associated with acknowledging the killings for what they are. The Pope’s voice certainly carries weight, but until the world’s leaders find the political will to speak out together, Turkey will continue to evade responsibility.
Hannah Gais is a nonresident fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association and director of The Eastern Project.