The Vatican and Turkey are embroiled in a row after Pope Francis used the word genocide in referring to the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey 100 years ago. Turkey responded by recalling its ambassador from Rome and the country’s foreign ministry said the Pope’s comments were “null and void” as far as the Turkish people were concerned.
In his remarks at a mass also attended by Armenian President Serž Sargsjan, the Pope mentioned not only Turkey but also the crimes of Stalinism and Nazism as well as in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia. But the Pope called the massacres of Armenians the first genocide of the 20th century.
Significantly, Armenia is not just any Christian country, but the oldest. Armenia declared Christianity to be the state religion back in 301, 12 years before the edict of Milan when Constantine ended persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire. One of the four quarters in Old Jerusalem is Armenian, alongside the Muslim, Christian and Jewish sections.
The Vatican’s relations with Muslims have not been smooth. We recall that in 1981, a Turk, Mehmet Ali Ağca, was behind the assassination attempt on John Paul II. Italy later pardoned the man at the Pope’s request and Ağca was sent to Turkey. In 2006, the Muslims took offence at a speech by Pope Benedict quoting the 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos as saying that the prophet Mohammed had called for the faith to be spread by the sword.
It is a bit odd that it is the one tearing down stereotypes. The Vatican has after all been considered a symbol of regressive attitudes, but in recent years popes have been calling for intercultural dialogue and remembrance of difficult junctures in history. Pope Francis’s statements and actions have been more progressive than those of a number of world leaders.
Turkey is a difficult issue. Western leaders have not wanted to ruffle Turkey’s feathers as it is NATO’s only ally outside of North America and Europe. Turkey is in the middle of a region that has been highly eventful in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and rise of the Islamic State. It should also be noted that Turkey has not completely denied what happened to the Armenians; they object to the tragic events of 1915 being called a “genocide.” Turkey and Armenia themselves have even moved slightly closer to one another on the issue. Last year, then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed sympathy to the grandchildren of the Armenians who lost their lives in Turkey 100 years ago.
It’s still impossible to imagine Turkey and Armenia getting along well, but if they did, it would mean a sea change strategically for the situation throughout the region and even further. If Armenia didn’t see Russia as the sole guarantor of its security, that would have far-reaching effects. Even the Armenia aspect of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership could gain legs in some form.
On Wednesday, members of European Parliament called for the Armenian genocide to be recognized on a pan-European level. This would mean a difficult choice for Estonia, as Estonia has not yet taken a clear position with regard to the Armenian genocide. Estonia wants the European Union to have a uniform foreign policy. But unity cuts many ways. Estonia’s own desire is that the world should have an unequivocal view of the crimes of communism perpetrated on Estonian soil. But this will require a similar view of crimes committed outside Estonia as well.