VATICAN CITY — Just hours after setting foot on Armenian soil, Pope Francis called the Metz Yeghérn (the “Great Evil”) a “genocide” that was “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.”
Addressing the President of the Armenian Republic, Serzh Sargsyan, and civil dignitaries at the presidential palace in Yerevan, Pope Francis thanked Armenia’s president for the opportunity to reciprocate the visit which he made to the Vatican one year ago, to commemorate the centenary of the Metz Yeghérn (the “Great Evil”). The Metz Yeghérn refers to the systematic extermination of nearly 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks between 1915-1917.
“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,” the pope said.
The word “genocide” did not appear in the pope’s prepared text. Much attention has been given to whether the pope would use the term during his apostolic visit to Armenia, given comments he made last Saturday in Rome saying he prefers the word “martyrdom.” Given the pope’s use of the term “genocide” at last year’s Vatican commemoration of the centenary of the Metz Yeghérn, as well as on other occasions, his departure from the prepared text to include the word “genocide” is not entirely a surprise. And certainly, the two terms are not mutually exclusive.
Again departing from his prepared text, the pope pointed to the international community’s complicity in the three great genocides of the 20th century, saying: “It is so sad that, both during this [genocide] and during the other two, the other international powers were looking elsewhere.”
Pope Francis praised the Armenian people whom, he said, “illuminated by the light of the Gospel, even at the most tragic moments of their history, have always found in the cross and resurrection of Christ the strength to rise again and take up their journey anew with dignity.” Their fidelity to Christ, he said, “shows the depth of their Christian faith and its boundless treasures of consolation and hope.”
“Having seen the pernicious effects to which hatred, prejudice and the untrammeled desire for dominion led in the last century, I express my lively hope that humanity will learn from those tragic experiences the need to act with responsibility and wisdom to avoid the danger of a return to such horrors,” he said.
Pope Francis expressed the Catholic Church’s wish to “cooperate actively with all those who have at heart the future of civilization and respect for the rights of the human person, so that spiritual values will prevail in our world and those who befoul their meaning and beauty will be exposed as such.”
“In this regard,” he told the Armenian president, civil and political leaders, “it is vitally important that all those who declare their faith in God join forces to isolate those who use religion to promote war, oppression and violent persecution, exploiting and manipulating the holy name of God.”
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“Today Christians in particular, perhaps even more than at the time of the first martyrs, in some places experience discrimination and persecution for the mere fact of professing their faith,” the pope said. He therefore called on leaders to make their primary goal “the quest for peace, the defense and acceptance of victims of aggression and persecution, the promotion of justice and sustainable development.”
“The Armenian people have experienced these situations firsthand; they have known suffering and pain; they have known persecution; they preserved not only the memory of past hurts, but also “not to fail to make your own precious contribution to the international community.”
“May God bless and protect Armenia,” Pope Francis concluded, “a land illumined by the faith, the courage of the martyrs and that hope which proves stronger than any suffering.”
Asked about Turkey’s possible reaction to the Holy Father’s use of the word “genocide” Federico Lombardi, S.J, director of the Press Office of the Holy See said, “The pope speaks always in the perspective of peace and dialogue.”
On Saturday, the Pope continues his apostolic visit to Armenia with the celebration of Holy Mass in Vartanants Square in Gyumri; a visit to the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of the Seven Wounds and to the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs; and an evening ecumenical meeting and prayer service for peace.
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.