By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
While Armenians throughout the world were overjoyed with the landmark “pilgrimage” of His Holiness Pope Francis to the first Christian state, most people were unaware of the behind the scenes deliberations on the Armenian Genocide issue in the Vatican prior to his visit.
The Pope’s dual roles as Pontiff of the Catholic Church and head of the Vatican State occasionally create problems within and outside the walls of the Holy See, which is what happened during the Pope’s visit to Armenia last week.
After lengthy preparations and internal discussions, the Pope arrived in Armenia on June 24 ready to deliver a series of sermons and remarks over the course of his three-day visit. Surprisingly, none of his prepared speeches contained the words Armenian Genocide, but there were plenty of references to “tragedy, slaughter, terrible trial, and immense suffering.” His homilies repeatedly used the Armenian term “Meds Yeghern” (Great Crime) which was wrongly translated by the Vatican as “Great Evil.” The first indication of a change in terminology came prior to the Pope’s pastoral visit in a video address to the Armenian people, which did not mention the Armenian Genocide. Later on, during his visit to the Armenian Genocide Monument, the Pontiff did not write the words Armenian Genocide in the guest book, copying the text from a pre-prepared note card!
There may have been two reasons why the words Armenian Genocide had been avoided:
1) Since Pope Francis had already gone on record using the term “Armenian Genocide” during last April’s Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican officials had decided to deliver a new message of “peace and reconciliation.”
2) The Pontiff’s foreign policy advisors may have been reluctant to raise the Armenian Genocide issue once again after the Turkish government’s harsh reaction last year and withdrawal of its ambassador from the Vatican for 10 months.
Pope Francis, however, surprised everyone, when he departed from the text of his prepared remarks that had been already distributed to the media, by adding the word genocide to his address at the Presidential Palace in Yerevan on June 24. Here is what Pope Francis actually said while recalling his earlier sermon of April 12, 2015: “The occasion was the commemoration of the centenary of the Metz Yeghern, the ‘Great Evil’ that struck your people and caused the death of a vast multitude of persons. Sadly, that tragedy, that genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.”
Later that day, Father Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See’s Press Office, explained why Pope Francis deviated from his prepared text: “The Pope says what he finds appropriate, and no one decides what the Pontiff should say. The Pope had no reason to avoid the word ‘genocide’ during his trip to Armenia. The reality is clear and we never denied what the reality is.”
The Pontiff’s use of that single word in one speech did not escape the attention of Turkish authorities. Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli responded by accusing the Pope of having a “Crusader mentality.” Canikli went on to repeat the usual Turkish lies about the Armenian Genocide. Lombardi, the Pontiff’s spokesman, dismissed the Deputy Prime Minister’s criticism, stating that “the Pope is not doing Crusades. He has said no words against the Turkish people.”
Refusing to buckle under Turkish pressure, Pope Francis went on to sign a “Joint Declaration” with Catholicos Karekin II on June 26, 2016, which referenced the Vatican’s earlier acknowledgments of the Armenian Genocide: Pope Francis’s April 12, 2015 sermon and the “Joint Declaration” signed on Sept. 27, 2001 by Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin II. Another “Joint Communique” acknowledging the Armenian Genocide was signed on Nov. 29, 2000, by John Paul II and Karekin II.
During his return flight to Rome on June 26, an AFP journalist asked Pope Francis why he added the word genocide to his speech in Yerevan. The Pope explained in detail that genocide is the only word he has grown up with to describe the mass killings of Armenians. The Pope also mentioned his upcoming trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2.
Pope Francis approached his “pilgrimage” to Armenia with utmost honesty and spoke from his heart about the Armenian Genocide, ignoring the political calculations of his advisers and speechwriters. He preferred to conduct himself as a true man of God rather than a crafty politician!