Never before have two words reverberated around the world as rapidly, and resonated as deeply. When Pope Francis referred to the massacres of nearly 1.5 million Armenians as the “primo genocidio” of the twentieth century, the impact was felt immediately, igniting international headlines while instilling an enormous sense of recognition and pride in millions of Armenians. For all those who had gathered inside St. Peter’s Basilica to witness the Sunday Mass marking the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, it was a day they will never forget. “It was one of the most powerful and moving experiences of my life,” recounts AGBU Central Board Member Arda Haratunian. “It was almost like time stood still for a second.”
For in that moment—at the very start of the ceremony—every Armenian among the crowd of thousands realized, as the revered spiritual leader of one billion Catholics across the globe, Pope Francis had made Armenia the center of attention of the entire Christian world, providing an unequivocal moral boost to their century-long struggle for recognition and justice.
At the same time, the statement delivered a blow to Turkey’s efforts to deny the killings as systematic genocide. Before becoming pontiff, Pope Francis had close ties to the Armenian community in Argentina, and his declaration was clearly intended to provoke. Turkey swiftly recalled its ambassador to the Vatican back to Ankara, expressing its “grave disappointment and sadness” over the Pope’s remarks.
It was not the first time a pope has described the Armenian massacres as genocide—Pope John Paul II did so in a written statement in 2001. Pope Francis however went considerably further, condemning the Armenian Genocide as one of “three massive and unprecedented tragedies” in the 20th century, alongside Nazism and Stalin’s 1932-33 efforts to collectivize Soviet agriculture which resulted in a famine that claimed the lives of as many as 7.5 million people.
In words that could in no way be misconstrued, Pope Francis referred to the “immense and senseless slaughter whose cruelty your forbears had to endure,” noting how “bishops and priests, religious women and men, the elderly and even defenceless children and the infirm were murdered.” He said “it is necessary, and indeed a duty, to honor their memory, for whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester. Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
The evocative image extended the pope’s condemnation to all other more recent mass killings including those in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. Well aware of the power the platform of his papacy affords, Pope Francis was also speaking in the context of the contemporary persecution of Christians in the Muslim world, an issue about which the pope has become increasingly vocal. In a subsequent message directed to all Armenians, Francis called on all heads of state and international organizations “to oppose such crimes with a firm sense of duty, without ceding to ambiguity or compromise.”
The pope’s statement sent a powerful message to the international community. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who was also present at the Sunday Mass, called it “a significant result” in the fight to define the massacres by their true designation. Historian Taner Akçam, in an interview with the Washington Post, applauded the pope for going further than his predecessors. “I congratulate the pope,” he said. “This is a courageous movement, and I hope it will be a breakthrough.”
Indeed, inspired by the pope to break their silence, it did not take long for other nations to act. Three days later, the European Parliament called on Turkey to recognize the Armenian Genocide and renew diplomatic relations, while German President Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor, held an interfaith service in Berlin in which he described Armenia’s painful past as “exemplary in the history of mass exterminations, ethnic cleansing, deportations and, yes, genocide, which marked the 20th century in such a terrible way.” Referring to a seldomly-reported chapter of Germany’s history, Gauck also acknowledged the direct role played by German soldiers who “were also involved in the planning and, partly, in the execution of the deportations.” To date 26 nations have passed resolutions formally recognizing the Armenian Genocide.
For the thousands of Armenians who traveled from far and wide to witness Pope Francis commemorate their nation’s past, they left deeply moved by a profound moral act whose powerful repercussions continue to inspire and empower the souls of Armenians worldwide.