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A First for Francis. With the Ottoman Enemy
Sandro Magister writes in Chiesa L’Espresso:
ROME, April 17, 2015 - The first true “causus belli” that has broken the spell of a universally revered and praised pontificate has erupted on account of a century-old massacre, which Pope Francis has had the boldness to call by name, the taboo name of “genocide,” and to equate with all the other systematic, planned annihilations of peoples and religions that have marked the twentieth century and now also the present century.
It is difficult to deny that this marks a turning point in the pontificate. Because only a few months ago, at the end of November, Francis was in Turkey and didn't say a word about the Armenians.
To those who asked him why, he had replied that he was more interested in small steps, like those taken a year before by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a letter of condolence. In reality that letter, pure denial behind a bit of smoke, did nothing to console the Armenians, but embittered them all the more.
But Erdogan had asked the pope not to talk about the genocide, and Francis respected the request.
Vatican diplomacy breathed a sigh of relief. All in all, only about twenty countries in the world explicitly call the extermination of the Armenian Christians genocide. And they do so with all due caution in order not to irritate an ally, real or potential, that seems crucial to them.
But when on his schedule Pope Francis made the Sunday after Easter in 2015 a commemoration at St. Peter's of the hundredth anniversary of the massacre of the Armenians, a new approach was in the works.
How could Francis say less than what his predecessors had said?
Back on November 9 of 2000 John Paul II had already called that tragedy a genocide, and then again on September 27, 2001, in two solemn statements signed together with “catholicos” Karekin II, the first in Rome and the second in the capital of Armenia, where he had gone while the world was reeling from the destruction of the Twin Towers.
More than that, on the same journey pope Karol Wojtyla visited the memorial of the extermination and made a heartfelt prayer in which he called it what the Armenians call it: “Metz Yeghérn,” the great evil.
Back then as well these were taboo words, but the Turkish authorities reacted with moderation. Erdogan had not yet come to power with his combative neo-Islamism, and it was the peak of Turkey’s interest in joining the European community, in which the Armenian incident was an obstacle.
Benedict XVI as well, in receiving the patriarch of the Armenian Catholics on March 20, 2006, evoked the "Metz Yeghérn” without prompting any reactions, which however would explode vociferously against him a few months later in Regensburg when he unveiled the violent roots of the Muslim religion.
Last Sunday Pope Francis could have said as little as possible. Instead, and this is what is new, he went further, and by far.
Not only did he put the genocide of the Armenians at the head of the other genocides of the past century, but he listed them one by one, down to the ones that are still being carried out today to the harm of many who are “persecuted, exiled, killed, decapitated for the sole fact of being Christian,” whether they be Catholic or Orthodox, Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean, Greek. Like one hundred years ago, he said, “it seems that humanity is not able to cease from shedding innocent blood.”
Virulent reactions from the Turks, waffling from Western politicians. For Francis the peace and quiet is over.
This commentary was published in "L'Espresso" no. 11 of 2015, on newsstands as of April 17, on the opinion page entitled "Settimo cielo" entrusted to Sandro Magister.