First Things
April 14 2015

by Mark Movsesian

Last Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in St. Peter's
Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide,
an ethnic cleansing campaign that took place at the end of the Ottoman
Empire. In the course of a two-hour liturgy in the Armenian rite, and
in the presence of the Armenian Catholic patriarch, patriarchs of the
Armenian Apostolic Church, the president of the Republic of Armenia,
and many Armenian pilgrims from around the world, Pope Francis made
what should have been an entirely uncontroversial statement. The
Armenian Genocide, he said, quoting his predecessor Pope St. John
Paul II, "'is generally referred to as the first genocide of the
twentieth century.'"

The essential facts are well known. Armenian Christians made up a
significant percentage of the population in the Ottoman Empire's
eastern provinces. For a few decades, there had been unrest. In
religious and political reforms known as the Tanzimat, the Ottomans
had formally granted equal status to Christians and Muslims. Equality
for Christians caused a backlash among Turkish Muslims, though, and
oppression of Armenians and other Christians continued, particularly in
the countryside. Armenian paramilitary groups began to resist. When
World War I began, the Young Turk government worried that these
groups would side with Christian Russians. So it decided to solve the
"Armenian Question" once and for all by deporting the entire Armenian
population from Anatolia to Syria, through the Syrian desert.

Deportation through a desert, without adequate protection or
supplies, is obviously a recipe for mass extermination. And that
is what happened. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenian
Christians perished, under horrible conditions, in the death marches
and slaughters. The enormities are well documented.

Nonetheless, the Turkish side refuses to acknowledge what happened
as genocide, denying that there was any plan to eliminate Armenians
from Anatolia, while also arguing, inconsistently, that the Armenians
were a potentially disloyal population and that the Ottomans had a
right to do what they did. Besides, they say, many Turkish Muslims
also suffered and died in World War I--surely true, but a non-sequitur.

Because of Turkey's sensitivities on the subject, and because of
geopolitical realities, many Western governments, including our own,
dance around the issue. When running for office, President Obama
promised that he would officially recognize the Genocide, a promise
he immediately broke as president. So Pope Francis's forthright
statement--even if he was, in fact, only quoting a predecessor, who
was in turn referring to a general consensus--was remarkable, and
praiseworthy. (The words on paper don't capture the tone of the pope's
remarks. Watch this video of the event from Rome Reports. Francis is
not simply reading from a text. He obviously means every word of it).

In response, Turkey has condemned the pope's remarks as religious
hate-mongering and recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. The
repercussions will no doubt continue. Yesterday, Turkey's minister
for European affairs suggested the pope had been brainwashed by the
Armenian community in Argentina. Today, Turkish President Recip Erdogan
reacted in rather personal terms. According to the English-language
Turkish Daily News, Erdogan--who actually has gone farther than many
Turkish leaders in acknowledging the suffering of the Armenians in
1915--said the pope's remarks were characteristic of a "politician"
rather than a religious leader. "I want to warn the pope to not repeat
this mistake and condemn him," Erdogan said.

In his remarks, Francis correctly linked the Armenian Genocide to the
persecution of Mideast Christians generally--a hundred years ago, and
today. Religion was not the only factor in the Genocide, of course,
but it had a major role. Armenians who converted to Islam were often
spared; some of their descendants still live in Turkey today. Many
Armenians died as Christian martyrs; indeed, the Armenian Apostolic
Church will canonize these victims of the Genocide at a ceremony in
Armenia this month. Moreover, as the pope told the crowd at St.

Peter's, the Genocide struck not only the "Armenian people, the
first Christian nation"--here the pope is referring to the fact that
Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion,
in 301 a.d.--but also "Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians,
Chaldeans and Greeks." In all these communions, "bishops and priests,
religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children
and the infirm were murdered."

In addition, as everyone knows, the persecution of Christians in the
Middle East continues today. The pope referred to these new martyrs
as well: "Sadly, today too we hear the muffled and forgotten cry
of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account
of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and
ruthlessly put to death--decapitated, crucified, burned alive--or
forced to leave their homeland." Many Christian communities in Syria
and Lebanon took in the refugees of 1915, saving their lives, giving
them a place to raise their children and preserve their faith. Now
those communities themselves are the victims of ethnic and religious
cleansing. To whom shall they go?

In an insightful column, Walter Russell Mead argues that Pope
Francis's remarks show that he has decided to raise the rhetorical
stakes in the crisis facing Christians in the Mideast. Up until now,
the Vatican has taken a "'softly, softly'" approach to the conflict,
so as not to endanger the lives of vulnerable Christians still there.

Outside intervention often makes things worse for Mideast Christians,
after all. But how much worse can things get? Mideast Christians are
threatened with extinction.

Today's Turks are not responsible for what their ancestors did one
hundred years ago. God willing, Turks and Armenians will one day be
able to reconcile in a way that honors justice. Acknowledging the
truth about what happened to the Armenians is a start. Meanwhile,
drawing attention to the Armenian Genocide may be a way to mobilize
the world to save suffering Christians now--before it is too late.

Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law
and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John's
University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.