By Philip Pullella, Reuters
Armenia's religious leader on Wednesday used the pulpit of the Vatican to condemn the 1915 killing of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks, saying the whole world should recognize it as a genocide.
"We Armenians are a people who have survived genocide, and we know well the value of love, brotherhood, friendship and a secure life," Catholicos Garegin II said in a public address during Pope Benedict's general audience in St Peter's Square.
"Today, many countries of the world recognize and condemn the genocide committed against the Armenian people by Ottoman Turkey ..." the head of Armenia's Apostolic Church added, speaking in English before tens of thousands of people.
Garegin, who like the pope has the title "His Holiness," said he wanted to "appeal to all nations and lands to universally condemn all genocides that have occurred throughout history and those that continue to the present day ..."
Turkey strongly denies Armenian claims, saying that Muslim Turks also died in inter-ethnic conflict as the Ottoman Empire crumbled during World War One. Western historians have backed Armenian claims that the killings amounted to a genocide.
In his address to Garegin before the crowd, Benedict spoke of "the severe persecutions suffered by Armenian Christians, especially during the last century," but did not use the word genocide. Garegin, in his address broadcast live on many religious television stations around the world, said "the denial of these crimes is an injustice that equals the commission of the same".
France's lower house of parliament infuriated Turkey in 2006 by backing a bill that would make it a crime to deny that mass killings of Armenians amounted to genocide. France's Senate never ratified the bill. Last year legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a resolution to formally name the massacre a genocide but the move faltered under stiff opposition by President George W. Bush and Turkey, a key NATO ally.
The word "genocide" appeared in a joint statement when Garegin visited the late Pope John Paul in 2000. But the Vatican, which has diplomatic relations with both Armenia and Turkey, has never formally recognized the killings as such. John Paul visited Armenia in 2001 and prayed at a monument to the dead in the capital, Yerevan.