In November 2014 Pope Francis made a pastoral visit to Turkey and was cordially received by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's at his new palace in Ankara, and was rapturously welcomed by Catholics in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. A reporter commented: "Pope Francis is a master bridge-builder and at building relationships across the divides of faith, of politics and of culture."
Why then did the Pope risk losing the goodwill from Turkey, a NATO ally, by his comments less than six months later on the Armenian genocide? On 24th April 2015, during a Mass with Catholics of the Armenian Rite, Pope quoted St. John Paul II in describing the murder of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire:
In the past century our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies. The first, which is widely considered 'the first genocide of the twentieth century', struck your own Armenian people, the first Christian nation, as well as Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks.
Following the Pope's statement, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Holy See for consultation and summoned the Vatican's Apostolic Nuncio. Various Turkish officials, including President Erdogan openly condemned the Pope, however, many representatives and heads of state around the world applauded Pope Francis's recognition of "The Great Evil", also known as Metz Yeghern.
The bells of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, joined by those of St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, St Stephen's Uniting Church and Orthodox Coptic and Oriental Churches across Sydney tolled l00 times to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the massacre of 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Empire during World War 1.
This special tribute to the estimated 1.5 million Armenian Christians massacred by the Ottoman Empire during World War I was followed by the tolling of church bells in cities worldwide, including Armenia where 100 tolls of church bells took place at exactly 1900 hours 15 minutes, to symbolise 1915 when the massacre began. On April 24 1915 Ottoman authorities rounded up, arrested and subsequently executed 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. Throughout World War I and in the months that followed, the massacre of Armenian Christians occurred in two phases, the first of which involved the forced labour and killing of Armenia's able bodied male population, followed by the second phase involving the deportation of women, children and the infirm on death marches into the Syrian desert.
Modern day Turkey does not deny these massacres took place but denies it was genocide, claiming the mass killings were not deliberate or systematically orchestrated by the State. Instead the Turkish Government insists the deaths of Armenians were among the many casualties of the drawn out brutal 1914-18 Great War.
So why did Pope Francis risk the goodwill of Turkey by commemorating the Armenian genocide?
In a new book entitled, The Armenian Genocide [Völkermord an den Armeniern], German historian Michael Hesemann reveals for the first time the content of never-before-published documents on "the greatest crime of World War I," and how Pope Benedict XV and Vatican diplomacy tried to stop the deportations of the Armenians into the Syrian desert, save the victims and prevent the massacre of an entire people.
In an interview with Diana Montagna of Aleteia, an initiative of Foundation for Evangelization through the Media, Hesemann says he was working on a study on the life of Eugenio Pacelli, who was the Papal Nuncio in Munich from 1917 - 1925 and later became Pope Pius XII, so he went through the files of the Apostolic Nunciature in Munich, only to discover one folder with the title "Persecution of the Armenians".
I opened it and found a letter of the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal von Hartmann, to the Chancellor of the Reich, Graf (Count) Härtling, in which he calls the persecution of the Armenians 'not less brutal than the persecutions of the Christians in the first centuries of Christianity'. The Archbishop requested an urgent German intervention, unfortunately in vain.
In the same file I found a copy of a letter written by Pope Benedict XV to the Sultan, asking for mercy for the innocent Armenians. These documents both touched me and aroused my curiosity. I felt I had just touched the tip of an iceberg and was sure I would find more data, and indeed I did - some 2500 pages so far.
I soon realized that no historian had ever worked with most of these documents, and that all this information was obviously unknown even to the leading experts on the Armenocide.
Given the importance of their content, I decided to write a book, putting the documents in the context of what we already know about the events of 1915-18. The most surprising insight was that the Armenian genocide was in fact just part of a bigger plan - the extermination of all non-Muslim minorities in the Ottoman Empire.
The ruling 'Young Turk' movement came in contact with European ideas of nationalism and the concept that only a homogenous state can be a strong state. That is why they believed that the weakness of the Ottoman Empire was caused by its multi-religious and multi-ethnic character.
They wanted to 'heal' this 'weakness' by eliminating all foreign elements, which first meant the Christians who numbered 19% of the population in early 1914. Besides the Armenians, also Aramaic and Assyrian Christians, Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christians were persecuted and murdered.
The Turkish claim of a conspiracy between Russia and some Armenian leaders was nothing but a lie to justify those measures. If that were really the case, why did they kill innocent women and children, too? And why didn't they spare the other Christian groups, which were never under suspicion? Indeed, the Turkish Secretary of the Interior, Talaat Bey, quite frankly told Johann Mordtmann of the German Embassy, according to a report to Berlin: 'The (Turkish) government uses the war to get rid of our internal enemies - the indigenous Christians of all denominations - without diplomatic interventions by foreign nations.'....
Already in June 1915, the Vatican had a vague idea of what had happened in Eastern Anatolia. One month later, there was no doubt about the horrible massacres carried out against most of the male Armenian population. For the whole of August 1915, Msgr. Dolci - the Apostolic Delegate in Constantinople - did everything humanly possible to interfere diplomatically - without any success.
When drastic reports reached the Vatican in September 1915, Pope Benedict XV wasted no more time and decided to act. He sent an autograph to Sultan Mehmet V, pleading for mercy for the Armenians. The Turks refused even to receive it. For two months, Msgr. Dolci tried everything to present it to its addressee, but it was not received by the Sultan.
Only when he asked both the German and the Austrian ambassador for help was he granted an audience. When another four weeks later the Sultan answered, most of the deportations were already completed. All promises of the Turks to end the massacres or spare one group or the other - or to let them return home - turned out to be lies.
In December, Pope Benedict referred to the failure of any diplomatic intervention in his allocution to the Cardinals at the Consistory of December 6, 1915. In it, he spoke of 'those sorrowful people of the Armenians, almost completely driven into their extermination.' "
In June 1916, the Armenian Catholic Patriarch had to inform the Holy See: 'The project of the extermination of the Armenians in Turkey is still going on. ... The exiled Armenians ... are continuously driven into the desert and there stripped of all vital resources. They miserably perish from hunger, disease and extreme climate. ... It is certain that the Ottoman government has decided to eliminate Christianity from Turkey before the World War comes to an end. And all this happens in the face of the Christian world.'
... The files from the pontificate of Benedict XV have only been open since the 1990s. not too many historians have access to them. And perhaps just nobody had any idea what he would find there .....
I am very grateful to Pope Francis. On Sunday we not only saw a beautiful, worthy and solemn commemoration of the Armenian martyrdom, we also experienced the victory of truth over diplomacy.
If you know how fanatically Turkey tries every means to debunk the events of 1915-1916, if you follow the chronology of their threats against nations much bigger and more powerful than the Vatican - nations such as France, Germany and the US - you get an idea what it takes to stand up and call a 'genocide' what was indeed the first genocide of the 20th century. Thank you, Pope Francis! What a great, wonderful, political pope who indeed acted as the moral conscience of the world and taught us that, as Christians, we should never be afraid of the truth.
The Turkish reaction to his brave remark could be expected. It is always the same. They claim that the Pope was misinformed, although he knows the truth from his own archives. By the way, when will the Turks open theirs?
We all, all nations of the civilized world share the Turkish guilt, because we allowed this to happen. By opportunism, by giving other topics priority, by what Pope Francis rightly called 'the globalization of indifference,' which is so evil. 'Cain, where is your brother Abel?' That's why nobody can ever say that he has nothing to do with the Armenian genocide, the holocaust or the fate of our Christian brothers in Syria and Iraq.
For ignoring their fate and their suffering makes us guilty, too. Not preventing a crime which happens before your very eyes makes you an accomplice of the perpetrator. We should never be ignorant, we should never be indifferent, but rather learn to act responsibly.
It is so sad that the Turks don't realize how they exclude themselves from the community of civilized nations by such acts. I mean, I am German and my nation committed the most horrible crime in history, the Shoah. But at least we admitted what we did, we deeply regret it and we tried anything possible for reconciliation and compensation.
As a Catholic, I believe that every sin and every crime can be forgiven, if you only confess and regret. But what you neither regret nor confess cannot be forgiven either. Turkey has the chance to overcome the trauma and guilt of the darkest chapter of its history, and that is to confess and regret! And we will all forgive. If not, these wounds will always be wide open, even after 100 years.....We can only be people of the future if we are not afraid of the past.
Dr. Hesemann's plea for a statement of regret resonates with many of us in Australia. Local Muslim political and religious leaders blame Islamophobia and incidents like thugs pulling headscarves off Muslim women, for the violence of ISIS. Pulling headscarves is an assault and deserves to be punished, and Christians sincerely regret such intimidation. But where is the Australian Muslims' regret for their co-religionists cutting off not just scarves but the heads of Christians in Libya, Iraq and Syria? Or for blowing up their fellow Muslims in Pakistan and in the Middle East for that matter? Which raises the intriguing question: Do Muslims suffer from Islamophobia?