Here, on the Hill of Swallows, time seems to have stopped. The mausuleum, the Wall of Remembrance and the Memorial Column —“The Reborn Armenia” — testify to the grief of a people that experienced a tragedy, “a genocide”as Pope Francis called it in his address to the nation’s authorities, a million and a half people exterminated by the Turks. A massacre that had been forgotten for a long time and is still denied today, causing constant tensions with Turkey, which continues to deny what happened at he start of World War I. Here, at the Tzitzernakaberd Memorial, within the circular mausuleum which comprises twelve inward-leaning basalt slabs, the number of provinces that fell victim to violence, there is an “Eternal Flame” that burns in memory of those who lost their lives. An event still struggling to achieve recognition.
Pope Francis and Catholicos Karekin were welcomed by the Armenian president and together walked the last bit of the path that leads up to the Memorial, where the Pope laid a floral wreathe outside the memorial. Children stood around with depictions of the martyrs of 1915. The Hrashapar bakuzmamp hymn was very moving in its description of the victims: “true images of the Lamb pf God, which led to slaughter, were sacrificed as immaculate lambs that stood before their slayers who were overcome by an irrational rage; and yet, they did not utter a word, neither to deny the Lord, nor the homeland. Holy and true Lord, until you do not judge and do not demand justice for the blood we shed.”
Pope Francis is very familiar with Armenia’s history and the sufferings of its people. In the speech he addressed to the nation’s authorities yesterday, Friday June 23, he recalled the “Metz Yeghérn,” the “Great Evil,” which is the name Armenians use to refer to their genocide. It was an event, the Pope said, which “struck your people and caused the death of a vast multitude of persons. Sadly, that tragedy 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 prayer of intercession at the Tzitzernakaberd Memorial was a telling gesture of closeness and sharing in the pain of the Armenian people. The Pope said a prayer in Italian to mark the occasion: “Listen to us Lord and have mercy.”
Along the garden path, the Pope blessed and watered a tree planted to commemorate his visit. A dozen or so descendants of persecuted Armenians watched fromt he terrace. Pope Benedict XV had given them shelter at Castel Gandolfo. “Here, with pain in my heart, I pray that we will never see tragedies like this one repeated ever again, I pray that humanity will not forget and will be able to defeat evil with good; may God preserve the memory of the Armenian people. Memory should neither be watered down nor forgotten; memory is a source of peace and of future.”
Just over a year ago, Francis commeorated the centenary of the Armenian genocide with a Mass celebrated in St. Peter’s. Today, he watched the “Eternal Flame” burn in silence, in prayer and remembrance.
Reading over Francis’ homily and the message delivered to the Armenian people at the end of the liturgy in April 2015 commemoration of the centenary, it is apparent that, from Francis’ point of view, the recognition of the massacre, which took place in 1915, does not in any way attempt to blame Turkey as a whole for the events that took place a century ago.
In response to a question about the Armenian genocide put to him during the return flight from Istanbul to Rome at the end of his visit to Turkey in November 2014, Francis used encouraging words to describe the Turkish president’s initial recognition of the Armenian tragedy: “The Turkish government made a gesture last year: the then Prime Minister Erdogan wrote a letter on the anniversary; a letter that a few judged as too weak; but it was, in my opinion, great or small, I don’t know, extending a hand. And this is always positive. I can reach out this way or that way, expecting the other person’s response not to embarrass me. And this is positive, what the then Prime Minister did.”
The first killings of the “Metz Yeghérn” began during the night, between April 23 and 24, 1915: members of Constantinople’s Armenian élite were arrested. The operation, which had been planned by the Ottoman Empire, continued in the days taht followed. In one month, more than a thousand Armenian intellectuals, including journalists, writers, poets and members of parliament were deported to inland Anatolia. Deportations and mass slaughter ensued, with the population — mostly composed of elderly people, women and children — being forced to join “death marches” towards the Deir ez Zor region in Syria: hundreds of thousands died of hunger, sickness and exhaustion or were killed along the way.