With Turkey's Armenians, Benedict shows off his 'great ear'


When Benedict XVI met the Armenian Patriarch of Turkey and didn’t use the word “genocide” to describe the suffering of Armenians in the early 20th century, most observers chalked it up to the pope’s relentless efforts to mend fences with Turks, and Muslims generally, over the course of his four-day trip.

The pope's formula was delicate: “I give thanks to God for the Christian faith and witness of the Armenian people, transmitted from one generation to the next, often in very tragic circumstances such as those experienced in the last century,” Benedict XVI said Nov. 30.

Though Benedict indeed spared no effort to send positive signals to the Turks, his more immediate sensitivity in his meeting with the Armenians was actually for someone else – the Armenians themselves, and especially their leader, Patriarch Mesrob II.

“It would have been a huge headache for us,” Mesrob II told NCR in Istanbul shortly after his meeting with the pope, referring to the prospect of Benedict XVI inflaming Turkish sentiment by using the term “genocide.”

Mesrob said doing so would have thrown his community of perhaps 60,000, the largest Christian community in Turkey but still a tiny minority in a nation of some 72 million, into tumult, potentially making them targets for a nationalist backlash.

Benedict XVI could have gone home after setting off such a rhetorical bomb, Mesrob II suggested, but the Armenians would have been left behind to deal with the aftermath.

An estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey perished in 1915-1923, due largely to policies of deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre, and starvation under the Ottoman Empire. The bulk of the Armenian population was driven out of Turkey into Syria, where many died of hunger and thirst.

Armenians understand what happened as the first genocide of the 20th century, while Turks insist it was part of the general upheaval of the First World War, in which many Turks suffered as well.

Despite the passage of almost 100 years, emotions are still so raw in Turkey over these events surrounding the birth of their nation that prosecutors have sometimes used Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which prohibits “insulting Turkishness,” to indict intellectuals who imply that genocide occurred. (Turkish courts, however, have always acquitted those so charged).

In the event, neither Mesrob for Benedict used the word “genocide” or its Armenian equivalent, Metz Yeghern, meaning roughly “malice.” Mesrob said he called Vatican officials prior to the pope’s visit, and both sides agreed to use only indirect language.

Benedict XVI also took another bit of advice from Mesrob II, issued in a September 2005 interview with NCR. Asked if he wanted Benedict to draw attention to specific violations of religious freedom in Turkey, such as the forced closure of Greek Orthodox and Armenian seminaries, Mesrob demurred.

“That would be interfering in the internal affairs of Turkey,” he said. “It should be dealt with on a different basis, not during an apostolic visit.”

In the event, although Benedict mentioned religious freedom six times over the course of the four-day trip, he never alluded to the concrete restrictions and forms of bureaucratic harassment facing Turkish Christians.

Among other things, the episode illustrates the following point: One could make a case that Patriarch Mesrob II, 50, who studied at in Rome and speaks fluent Italian and English, has one of the most difficult jobs in the entire Christian world.

Not only does he lead a small Christian flock in an overwhelmingly Muslim state, but he has to mediate between Turkish nationalists who are often fiercely anti-Armenian, and radicals on the Armenian side, including some in the Armenian diaspora in the United States and elsewhere, who miss no opportunity to complain of Turkish atrocities. Some Turkish extremists resent his very presence, while some Armenians suspect him of being “soft” on the Turks.

Mesrob’s strategy over the years has been to defend his community, but at the same time to be a model Turkish citizen.

For example, he has long been a vocal proponent of Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union; in his September 2005 interview with NCR, Mesrob argued forcefully that Benedict XVI should reverse his position on the subject.

“Isn’t it hypocritical to say that a Muslim country at the edge of Europe, which is much more moderate than many other Islamic nations, as secular as it can be within its own tradition, can't enter simply because it’s Muslim?” Mesrob said in that interview.

Asked if he thanked Benedict XVI for dropping the opposition he had expressed prior to his election as pope, Mesrob said he did, and that the pontiff’s answer was, “You’re welcome.”

Mesrob II has also distanced himself from Karekin II, Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who during a visit to Istanbul last June demanded that the Turks officially recognize the Armenian genocide.

“At the press conference at which Katekin II spoke, TV cameras from the Armenian station Shoagat were present,” Mesrob said at the time. “All of the diaspora watches Shoagat TV. So Karekin knew the public he was addressing with his comments.”

“The disaster of 1915 should be examined on separate platforms by politcians, historians, diplomats, and sociologists,” Mesrob said. “This would be very helpful in terms of creating empathy and understanding, rather than enmity.”

Mesrob has also criticized recent French proposal that would make it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide, saying it would inflame extremist sentiment on all sides.

Given that history, it's hardly surprising that Mesrob urged the pope that discretion would be the better part of valor. In any event, Mesrob said, “everyone knows” what Benedict’s reference to “very tragic circumstances” meant.

Further, there is already a papal precedent for recognizing the genocide. When John Paul II visited the Tzitzernagaberd Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, in 2001, which memorializes the event, he did not himself use the word “genocide,” referring instead in Armenian to the Metz Yeghern. Yet John Paul and Karekin II put out a joint statement recalling the suffering of “what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.”

Benedict’s visit to Mesrob took place at Sourp Asdvadzadzin (Virgin Mary) Church in Kumkapi, an Armenian enclave in Istanbul. He conducted an ecumenical service in the church, which was attended by about 600 people. Afterwards, he and Mesrob II met one-on-one.

“A peaceful dialogue between Turkish and Armenian peoples is obligatory and our most important expectation,” Mesrob said in remarks at the service.

Mesrob said that the Armenian Patriarchy of Constantinopole has strong ties with Vatican, and that one of the ancient Armenian churches of the city, which does not operate at present, was once open for both Armenian believers and Catholics.

Mesrob II presented Benedict with a communion cup made by Armenian jewelers in 1820. Mesrob and Benedict also dedicated an Armenian khachkar, or memorial, inside the church listing the popes who have visited the Armenian Patriarchy of the Constantinople.

Afterwards, a reception was given in honor of Benedict. Mesrob told NCR that despite a grueling travel schedule for the 79-year-old pontiff, the pope’s musical acumen was undimmed. An Armenian chorus performed, and afterwards Benedict mentioned to Mesrob that he though he detected some Germanic elements in the arrangement. The startled Mesrob said that, in fact, the traditional Armenian music had been scored by a German.

“He picked it up right away,” Mesrob said. “He’s got a great ear.”

Benedict’s careful choice of language with the Armenians, and for that matter throughout the course of his four-day trip in Turkey, suggests that he has put that “great ear” to work after Regensburg.

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