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VATICAN CITY — “Medz Yeghern” (The Great Evil) is an even stronger term than “genocide” to describe the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks from 1915-17, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said on Tuesday. He therefore wondered why the media is generating so much “obsession” over the use of one word.
At a press briefing Tuesday on Pope Francis’ 3-day apostolic visit to Armenia, June 24-26, Fr. Lombardi was asked by reporters whether Pope Francis would use the word ‘genocide’ during the visit. One journalist, observing that Fr. Lombardi had refrained from using the word “genocide” during the briefing, suggested he and the Vatican are being reductionist, and that their “reluctance” to use the word comes from a “fear of irritating the Turks.”
“Why the reluctance to use the word ‘genocide?’ Why the reductionism?,” the reporter asked.
Fr. Lombardi responded: “Why is there an obsession about using the word ‘genocide’ and asking all the questions about this? I will respond with the words of my Armenian friend who is here in the front row … who when we were discussing this, said that when one uses the expression ‘Medz Yeghern’ which is the Armenian expression, it is even stronger than what the term ‘genocide’ conveys.”
“Therefore,” Fr. Lombardi continued, “I prefer to use this expression precisely so as not to be entrapped by questions that do nothing but revolve around the use of one word. And so I focus on the substance.”
“We know what happened. None of us denies that these massacres occurred, and that they were horrible massacres… We are all very well aware of it and we acknowledge it … But we don’t want to turn this into a trap of political/sociological discussions, because we focus on the substance: there was an unjust massacre of people whom we also recognize as martyrs, inasmuch as many of them were killed for the Faith.”
“It is an enormous tragedy,” the Vatican spokesman continued. “Pope John Paul II used this word in his declaration, saying he considered it to be the first genocide of the last century. Excellent. But I think that I am also free in the use of my words, and I know what I am talking about, I use the expression ‘Medz Yeghern’ which is the expression my Armenian brothers use, and I believe we know what it refers to.”
The need for neutrality?
Father Antranig [Antonio] Ayvazian, a professor at University of Yerevan, and expert on the history, culture and Church in Armenia, who took part in Tuesday’s briefing, confirmed Fr. Lombardi’s comments, saying:
“As an Armenian, I lost all of my family. Only my father remained … When we speak of the genocide, it’s true, we use ‘Medz Yeghern,’ which means ‘the great carnage of uprooting a population,” Fr. Ayvazian said.
“The Armenian word is extremely strong, extremely strong,” the Armenian priest said, explaining that it means to “bloodily cut off the presence of an entire people, not just to send them away.”
He then told reporters: “Don’t forget that the Holy See, in being the Holy See, the presence of the universal Church, which encompasses all people, has to have a bit of neutrality in all of these issues that can have a political aspect. That is, the Holy See has this right — I say it as an Armenian … The Holy See has to be neutral to all peoples, even if they are enemies among themselves.”
“Only in this way can she be the bearer of peace, of a closeness that is acceptable to everyone, a coexistence of peoples, and this is her mission,” he said. “The mission of the Holy Father is to draw peoples closer together. Therefore, it’s not a matter of a word said here or there. The Holy See has already used [genocide] many times, both in writing as well as in statements.” Therefore, he said, “there’s no need to keep repeating, ‘Why didn’t he use it?’ and ‘Why didn’t he use it?’”
In his comments, Fr. Ayvazian also added that Armenians hold Pope Benedict XV in very high esteem, knowing that during the genocide, he and the Vatican tried to stop the deportations of the Armenians into the Syrian desert, save the victims and prevent the massacre of an entire people.
Fr. Ayvazian described some of great evils the Armenian people suffered, including Christians being locked inside churches and burned alive. “If you come to our province, even today, after 101 years, if you put your finger in the ground and scratch 2 centimeters down, you find endless human bones, endless, after 101 years.”
Yet during the genocide, there were also Turks who protected Armenians, both priests noted. Fr. Lombardi said that among the reporters travelling on the papal visit is Evangelina Himitian, the daughter of an Armenian evangelical pastor in Argentina, and a friend of then-Cardinal Bergoglio during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Himitian’s grandparents were victims of the Ottoman persecution of Armenians, whose lives were saved through the help of Turkish peasants who offered them protection.
The “one thing” Armenia wants from Turkey
During the press briefing, a young Turkish journalist asked if Pope Francis will visit the Armenian/Turkish border during his 3-day visit. Fr. Lombardi said that while such a visit is not on the pope’s schedule, his release of two white doves in the direction of Mount Ararat, at the Khor Virap monastery near the Turkish border, is intended to send a message of peace. The monastery is revered as the site where St. Gregory the Illuminator, the founder of Christianity in Armenia, was imprisoned in a well for 13 years.
Fr. Ayvazian commended efforts aimed at reconciliation and emphasized that the Armenians are a people ready to forgive.
“The Swiss began with a soccer match between the Armenians and the Turks, thinking that soccer was a way to unite them,” he said. The Turkish president went, and the Armenian president also traveled to Turkey for the football match … I was telling our dear Father [Lombardi], as an Armenian: once, a group of diplomats from various countries came to visit me. One of them was a Turk. They arrived at the bishop’s residence, at my home. The Turk wouldn’t come in. He remained outside. One of the diplomats … told me: we have a Turkish diplomat outside who won’t dare enter an Armenian home. I said: ‘Why not? Why? What is it?’ So I went outside an invited him in.”
“For us Armenians, we are very sentimental,” he explained. “Today,” he told the young Turkish journalist, “if you pass through the capital of Armenia, you will find hundreds and hundreds of Turks who come, and they are very well taken care of and served, better than others. In the depths of the Armenian soul, there isn’t that hatred that people think we have.”
“What do we ask of Turkey? Only one thing. The whole world has seen and testifies to what happened. Enough with denying it.”
“Beloved,” he told the Turks through the presence of one young journalist, “you also have so, so many thousands of people who know, who even helped the Armenians, who killed Armenians, but it’s over. Let’s turn the page, we can live in peace. What do we ask? Only that you say: yes, this historical error happened. What is the problem with that?”
Fr. Lombardi follows comments which Pope Francis made last Saturday. The Pope made clear his views on using the term “martyrdom” over “genocide.”
“I don’t like it, and I want to say it clearly, I don’t like it when they speak of a genocide of Christians, for example in the Middle East: this is a reductionism, it is a reductionism,” he said, speaking at Rome’s Villa Nazareth, an apostolate that offers educational opportunities for young persons in need.
The Pope continued: “The truth is a persecution which leads Christians to fidelity, to consistency in their faith. Let’s not make a sociological reductionism of what is a mystery of the faith: martyrdom. Those 13 — I believe they were Coptic Christian Egyptian men, saints today, canonized by the Coptic Church — their throats slit on the coast of Libya: all of them died, saying: “Jesus, help me!”
There are various possible reasons why the Pope said this, especially in light of the fact that he has used the term ‘genocide’ in the past.
In April 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Pope Francis — quoting Pope John Paul II — described the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I as “the first genocide of the twentieth century,” and urged the international community to recognize it as such.
More to read: The Armenian saint who is our 36th Doctor of the Church
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Genocide, Martyrdom, “Medz Yeghern” What Word Would You Choose?]
Diane Montagnais Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.