One and a half million Armenians marched into the desert to die. It happened 101 years ago, on Europe’s doorstep, in the same lands which today are seeing other innocents massacred.
In March of No Return, Italian journalist Franca Giansoldati tells the story of Armenia, “the first genocide of the 20th century.” The book, Giansoldati says, is a challenge against the silence which has surrounded these events for decades. It is the challenge of a woman who graduated with a degree in modern history, having heard “little or nothing” about the Armenian genocide until she came across it almost by chance.
“The denial of history is not a habit of the past only. There is a hole in the history books concerning the events that occurred between 1915 and 1920 within the Ottoman Empire. The subject might be condensed into half a chapter, or a few lines in the context of World War I, inserted as a side issue, without getting to the root of this dark chapter in European history.” That is why Franca wanted to write a well-documented book on the “Metz Yeghern” (the “Great Evil”) designed for a wider audience. The book allows her to go into schools and talk to young people about what happened. “You have to start in the school,” she says.
In 1994, Franca was working as an intern in a news agency. She initiated steps to have a motion made in the Italian Parliament acknowledging the Armenian genocide. As she began collecting documentation a world opened up before her; she vowed to make the Armenian genocide better known to the world. Six years later, in the year 2000, in the wake of the joint declaration signed by Pope John Paul II and the Catholicos of Armenians, Karekin II — in which the word “genocide” appears — the motion was approved.
Yet the truth is the Catholic Church has never failed to lend its support to the Armenian people, from Benedict XV, who was pope when the genocide occurred, to Pope Benedict XVI, to Pope Francis. The latter, after reading the draft of the book, wrote these lines to Franca: “It is my hope that your work of research and documentation will be met with the appreciation due to such a historical, investigative work, which is so valuable in recovering memory, as a form of justice and a path to peace.”
More to read: In Armenia, Pope Francis uses the word “genocide”
“Benedict XV was a true great,” Franca Giansoldati says. In her book, she tells of his prophetic vision and his diplomatic skills. “He was the only European head of state who fought like a lion to stop the massacres. He was fully aware of the scale of what was happening; the documentation arriving on his desk was horrific.” Furthermore, the author observes, in 1915, well before Vatican II and the age of ecumenism, Benedict XV “never distinguished between Gregorian and Catholic; he wrote to the Sultan; he organized a network of diplomats that, even after the war, sought to raise awareness among governments to the Armenian question.”
Pope Benedict XVI chose the pontifical name “Benedict” partly in honor of Benedict XV, whom he called “that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through turbulent times of war. In his footsteps I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples,” he said following his election.
And it was precisely “under the impetus of Benedict XVI and, later, Francis, [that] the Jesuit Georges-Henry Ruyssen collected, cataloged and made accessible some 20 thousand documents on Armenia related to the period between 1915-1923.” The documents are now preserved in different Vatican archives (the Secretariat of State, Congregation for Eastern Churches, and Propaganda Fide).
“Thanks to these two popes we have the possibility of complete documentation,” Giansoldati says. Fr. Ruyssen spent seven years researching and compiling the documentation. After his work, Giansoldati says, “it is impossible to continue to deny what happened.”
Letters from missionaries, diplomatic dossiers, correspondence from ambassadors, letters of Benedict XV to the chancelleries of Europe, two letters to the Sultan. Then there are the lists enumerating the requests for help, and the assistance offered, by which we understand the magnitude of the tragedy. Among them is the letter from the apostolic nuncio, Angelo Dolci, asking 27,500 blankets for orphanages. “The Turkish historians claim that the figures provided by the Armenians are excessive. They probably are, but by defect: in reading the documentation one would estimate almost two million people were killed.”
When Franca talks about the genocide in schools, she says, “the children do not understand what could have happened to trigger such hatred. I explain to them the scenario in 1915, and before that in 1894, when under the reign of Sultan Hamid, the persecution against Armenians began.” It is the time when nationalist theories began to take hold. Turkey, too, wanted to eliminate the foreign elements. And who was more foreign to them than the Armenian Christians?
World War I arrived. “Armenians are not of Turkish race; they aren’t Muslims. Furthermore, they are a more cohesive and wealthy community — and the Turkish state is bankrupt after the campaign in Greece. With the Russian front open, and fear of a conspiracy with the Christian enemy, everything conspires against the Armenians. Turkey plans to confiscate their property and exterminate them, with forced marches into the desert. Ankara would rather these events remain buried under the sand, as they call into question the identity of modern Turkey,” who had turned the masterminds behind the genocide into national heroes. Franca Giansoldati’s book was supposed to be published in 2015, the centenary of the “Metz Yeghern” (the “Great Evil”) as the Armenians call it. Instead, it came out just days before Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia. The delay, Giansoldati said, was also due to a year of strong diplomatic pressure from Turkey.
Just hours after setting down on Armenian soil, Pope Francis set aside diplomatic concerns and, departing from his prepared text, called the Armenian tragedy a “genocide.” Yet Pope Francis has travelled to Armenia with a message of hope, and peace. This was his message on Saturday at the “Great Evil” Memorial, and this is the message he will carry today to Khor Virap monastery, near the Turkish border, from which St. Gregory the Illuminator’s work of evangelization began. There Pope Francis will release two white doves, with Turkey on the horizon.
Translated from the Italian