Pope Francis has drawn parallels between the ongoing persecution of ancient Christian communities of the Middle East and the suffering of Armenians in the region, which culminated in the 1915 genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
Francis paid tribute to Armenians massacred “just for being Christians” after presiding on Monday over a morning mass at the Vatican’s St. Martha chapel attended by the top Armenian Catholic clergymen, including the recently elected Patriarch Gregory Peter XX.
“One of many great persecutions: that of the Armenian people,” Francis said in remarks reported by Radio Vatican. “The first nation to convert to Christianity: the first. They were persecuted just for being Christians.”
“The Armenian people were persecuted, chased away from their homeland, [left] helpless, in the desert,” he added in a clear reference to the 1915 slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
Francis referred to those massacres as “the first genocide of the 20th century” in April while holding a special mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s basilica dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. Turkey reacted angrily to that characterization, accusing the pontiff of distorting history and recalling its ambassador to the Vatican in protest.
Armenia, whose president Serzh Sarkisian was present at the landmark Vatican liturgy, rejected the Turkish criticism. Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian praised Francis for delivering the “important message of solidarity with and support to the Armenian people.”
Francis on Monday put the Armenian suffering in the context of historical Christian martyrdom epitomized by Jesus Christ. “Dear brothers and sisters, there is no Christianity without persecution,” he declared, according to Radio Vatican. “Today too, this happens before the whole world, with the complicit silence of many powerful leaders who could stop it. We are facing this Christian fate: go on the same path of Jesus.”
“We now, in the newspapers, hear the horror of what some terrorist groups do, who slit the throats of people just because [their victims] are Christians. We think of the Egyptian martyrs, recently, on the Libyan coast, who were slaughtered while pronouncing the name of Jesus,” he said.
“We do not know what will happen here. Only let the Lord give us the grace, should this persecution happen here one day, of the courage and the witness that all Christian martyrs have shown, and especially the Christians of the Armenian people,” concluded the pontiff.