By Emil Danielyan
A visibly moved Pope John Paul II used an Armenian phrase equivalent to the word genocide on Wednesday as he paid homage to some 1.5 million Armenians massacred in the Ottoman Empire 86 years ago. Steering clear of a diplomatic row with Turkey, the pontiff stopped just short of terming the mass killings a “genocide” and instead referred to the “Mets Yeghern,” which means a big catastrophe, in his prayer in English at the Tsitsernakabert memorial to victims of the greatest tragedy in Armenian history.
“Listen, O Lord, to the lament that rises from this place, to the call of the dead from the depths of the Mets Yeghern,” he said after laying a wreath at the memorial on the second day of his visit to Armenia.
“We are appalled by the terrible violence done to the Armenian people, and dismayed that the world still knows such inhumanity.”
The pontiff angered Turkey last November when he signed a joint declaration with the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, describing the 1915 massacres as a genocide. The Vatican has since been careful to avoid the use of the politically sensitive term. Agence France Presse, quoting sources close to the Holy See, said Turkey has urged the Pope not to use the word during his visit to Armenia.
Official Ankara consistently denies that that mass killings and deportations carried out during the World War II were part of a premeditated government effort to exterminate the ethnic Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey. The Turks put the death toll at 300,000.
Armenians, who view the November statement as the Vatican’s official recognition of the genocide, use the term “Mets Yeghern” only with respect to the bloody events of 1915.
Appealing to God to show mercy to the Armenian people, the Pope said: “Look upon the people of this land who put their trust in you so long ago, who have passed through the great tribulation and never failed in their faithfulness to you. Wipe away every tear from their eyes and grant that their in agony in the twentieth century will yield a harvest of life that endures for ever.”
John Paul also recalled his predecessor Pope Benedict XV who, back in 1915, raised his voice in defense of “the sorely afflicted Armenian people brought to the brink of annihilation.” Benedict’s portrait was placed outside the twelve bending columns that circle the eternal fire.
The papal prayer was part of a joint religious ceremony conducted by top clerics from the Roman Catholic and Armenian churches in memory of the dead. Seated on armchairs by Tsisternakabert’s eternal fire, also listened to a live rendition of the hymn “Ave Maria” by Charles Aznavour, the famous French singer of Armenian origin.
Aznavour, who is currently in Armenia to attend events marking the 1700th anniversary of its adoption of Christianity as a state religion, had an audience with the Pope late on Tuesday. “I thanked him for coming here, for recognizing the genocide,” he told reporters after the prayer service at Tsitsernakabert.
John Paul arrived in Armenia on Tuesday on a three-day visit coinciding with the 1700th anniversary of the Caucasus nation's adoption of Christianity.