Vatican City (dpa) – Armenians were the victims of “the first genocide of the 20th century,” Pope Francis said Sunday, repeating remarks that, in the past, have triggered protests by the Turkish government.
“In the past century, our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies,” Francis said at the start of a special remembrance mass in St Peter’s Basilica for the mass killing of Armenians at the hands of Turkish Ottoman troops that began in 1915.
“The first, which is widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century, struck your own Armenian people, the first Christian nation, as well as Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks,” the pontiff said.
Francis said the other two genocides of the last century “were perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism” and went on to say the world was in the midst of another genocide, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
The leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Supreme Patriarch Karekin II, thanked the pope at the end an elaborate service that lasted two and a half hours.
“The Armenian genocide is an unforgettable and undeniable fact of history, deeply rooted in the annals of modern history and in the common consciousness of the Armenian people. Therefore, any attempt to erase it from history and from our common memory is doomed to fail,” Karekin said.
During World War I, up to 1.5 million people are estimated to have been slaughtered in Ottoman land, in events that are recognized as a genocide by many countries, but not Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire.
Official commemorations of the 1915-16 genocide are to start on April 24 in Armenia.
“It is the responsibility not only of the Armenian people and the universal Church to recall all that has taken place, but of the entire human family,” the pope said in a written message delivered to Armenian religious and political leaders after mass.
He also prayed for Armenia and Turkey to make amends.
“May God grant that the people of Armenia and Turkey take up again the path of reconciliation, and may peace also spring forth in Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Francis, a reference to a contested Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.
It is not the first time that the Vatican has used the word “genocide” to describe the events of 100 years ago.
On Sunday, the pope quoted a joint 2000 declaration from his predecessor, Saint John Paul II, and Karekin II. Francis used the same formulation in a June 2013 meeting with Armenian representatives at the Vatican.
At the time, the Turkish Foreign Ministry criticized the papal remarks as “unacceptable” and warned the Vatican against “making steps that could have irreparable consequences on our ties.”
“What is expected from the papacy, under the responsibility of its spiritual office, is to contribute to world peace instead of raising animosity over historical events,” the ministry added.
In Sunday’s mass, which was attended by Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, Francis also gave a special title to Saint Gregory of Narek, a medieval monk seen as the greatest poet and mystic of the Armenian nation.
He was elevated to the position of a doctor of the Church, making him one of only 36 saintly masters of Catholic teaching, along with other well-known religious figures such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine.
Gregory was born from a family of writers in around 950 and died about 55 years later. He is chiefly remembered for the Book of Lamentations, a compendium of 95 prayers considered a gem of Christian literature.
The monastery where he lived, as well as his grave, were destroyed during the Armenian genocide.