Turkey calls pope’s genocide reference in Armenia 'great disgrace'

This article appears in the Francis in Armenia feature series. View the full series.

Yerevan, Armenia — Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister says that the pope’s describing the World War I-era killings of 1.5 million Armenians as a genocide is a "great disgrace" that reflects the "traces and all the reflexes of the Crusades."

 In the first public response from the Turkish government since Pope Francis used the term while meeting with Armenia's political leaders Friday, Nurettin Canikli said Saturday: "We will not take this declaration seriously."

"It is not compatible with reality," Canikli said in an interview posted with the Turkish Hurriyet news website. "We all know it. The whole world knows it, including the Armenians."

Canikli continued: "In our history there does not exist something of this type. It is not possible because our faith and our traditions absolutely reject these types of things from the start."

The Turkish official made his comments in Turkish. Rome-based Turkish journalist Esma Cakir provided a translation of the remarks to NCR.

Much of the focus before Francis' Friday-Sunday trip to Armenia centered on whether the pontiff would use the word genocide to describe the killings, which were carried out under the rule of the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1915.

Turkey, the successor state to the empire, claims that the word genocide does not accurately describe the killings. The pope caused a diplomatic kerfuffle with Turkish leaders in 2015 when he first used the term for the killings at a Mass held at the Vatican in commemoration of their centennial.

The Vatican's chief spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi responded to Canikli's statement at a press conference Sunday, saying: "I think if one listens to the pope ... there is nothing of the spirit of Crusade."

"I can only invite to see correctly what the pope says and does," Lombardi continued. "The real intention of the pope is always to build ... peace and dialogue among people."

"He has said no word against the Turkish people. He has spoken of the desire for reconciliation," said the spokesman. "There is no Crusade."

The pontiff used the word in a meeting with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan Friday evening, adding it to prepared remarks that had carefully avoided the term.

As the prepared text indicated, Francis first referred to the killings by their Armenia description as the Metz Yeghérn, or the "Great Evil."

He then continued: "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."

Francis will return to Rome Sunday evening after participating in a liturgy of the Oriental Orthodox Armenian Apostolic church and visiting one of their most famous monasteries.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.] 

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