So now the Catholic pope is an Islamophobe, too! How exactly did he demonstrate an excessive and unreasonable fear of Muslims, which is supposedly what Islamophia is all about? And just when did the Pontiff acquire this mental condition? After all, isn’t this the same pope who prayed alongside Turkey’s Grand Mufti inside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul mere months ago?
Pope Francis’ offence was to call the 1915 mass killing of 1.5 million Armenian Christians a “genocide,” the first pope ever to do so. A few days later, the EU followed suit. Turkey, of course, continues to deny the existence of any organized campaign to wipe out the country’s Christian Armenian population. The hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians who died a century ago were the unfortunate victims of warfare and famine, Turkey insists.
No one expected Turkey’s leaders to react well to the Pope’s recent statement, but who would have predicted verbal attacks on the character of the Pope himself? The Turkish government recalled its ambassador from Rome, and the Vatican envoy was summoned to Ankara where he was informed that the Turkish government was “disappointed and saddened” by the Pope’s statement. Turkey’s Prime Minister Davutoglu said the Pope’s comments were “not fitting of the Pope.” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Cavusoglu accused the Pope of stoking hatred: “The Pope’s declaration, divorced from historical and legal facts, is unacceptable. Religious posts are not positions to stoke hatred and grudges on baseless claims.” Mehmet Gormez, head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, the highest religious authority in Turkey, called the Pope’s statement “immoral” and irreconcilable “with basic Christian values.” Gormez believes the Pope chose the word ‘genocide’ due to growing Islamophobia in Europe, a consequence of poor immigration policies. In other words, the Pope’s statement derived not from a heartfelt conviction, but was merely a reflection of the anti-Muslim mood of the people.
Why Pope Francis spoke the words “Armenian genocide” at this point in time undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that 24 April 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. On that day a century ago, the Turkish government arrested and executed 250 Armenian intellectuals, the first move in a premeditated campaign to exterminate an entire people.
The Ottoman Empire had entered the Great War on the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) which brought Turkey up against its old foe, Russia. The Turkish government viewed its Armenian population, which was largely Christian, with suspicion, wondering: Would the Armenians take the side of the Orthodox-Christian Russians and operate as a Fifth Column inside Turkey? Some Armenian volunteer battalions, it seems, had indeed helped the Russian army fight the Turks in the Caucuses. A decision was taken by the Turkish government to deport the entire Armenian population from the war zone in the east to an arid region in what is now Syria.
It was soon apparent what the Turkish government really had in mind for their Armenian minority. Relocation was only a pretext. Women, children, the sick and the elderly, were forced to march through the desert in the blazing sun without food and water, without proper clothing in many cases. They were escorted by Turkish gendarmes who deliberately led them along tortuous, indirect routes through mountains and wilderness areas and away from Turkish villages in order to prolong their ordeal. Those who stopped to rest were shot. It has been estimated that 75% of the Armenians who set out never made it all the way.
The rest of the world was made aware of the dire situation of the Armenian people by American diplomats stationed in Turkey (the US was not at war with Turkey). The American ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, for instance, had cabled Washington DC in July 1915 to warn that a “campaign of race extermination is in progress.” The US consul in Aleppo, Syria, Jesse Jackson, had watched the deportee convoys arriving. He sent a report to Washington DC, claiming to have seen mass graves holding up to 60,000 people.
Adding to the unbearable heat, the lack of food and water, and the extreme fatigue was the constant threat of a brutal death at the hands of a killing squad. Set up by the Turkish government, this cadre of criminals and thugs drowned deportees, threw them off cliffs, crucified them, burned them alive. They kidnapped children, forced young girls into harems, raped women and turned them into sex-slaves. Those who survived the journey south into the Syrian desert were herded into huge open-air concentration camps–25 camps in number–where they starved to death or were killed by sadistic guards.
The world knew what was happening, wrung its collective hands, and did nothing. Most people then forgot about it. But one man didn’t. During an interview by a German newspaper in 1931, Adolph Hitler told the editor that when deciding Germany’s future, one should “[t]hink of the biblical deportations and the massacres of the Middle Ages and remember the extermination of the Armenians.”
And one week before he invaded Poland in September of 1939, in an address to his commanding generals at Obersalzberg, Hitler is reported to have said:
…I have placed my death-head formations in readiness–for the present only in the East–with orders to send them to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” (Document L-3)
Hitler clearly took note of the world’s indifference to the slaughter of the Armenian people. Would the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis have happened if the Ottoman Turks had been held accountable for their role in the first genocide of the twentieth century? Was Hitler’s Final Solution a consequence of the world’s inaction in 1915? We’ll never know the answer to that.
The Republic of Armenia has chosen the forget-me-not flower as the official emblem of the centennial year observance of the Armenian Genocide (courtesy Pixabay)
Who would have brought the perpetrators to trial? Consider: Today marks the official observance of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, and yet, one hundred years after the event, only twenty or so countries out of 196 officially recognize the catastrophe as a “genocide.” As of today, that small number also includes Germany and Austria–but not the UK or US or even Israel. In 2008, then presidential candidate Obama promised he would acknowledge it, saying, “Armenian genocide is a widely documented fact.” I guess the American military bases in Erdogan’s Turkey trump that “widely documented fact.”
Why did Pope Francis speak the words “Armenian genocide” at this point in time, knowing full well how it would infuriate Turkey’s leaders? I believe he felt compelled to speak up now, not only because today marks the centennial observance of the Armenian Genocide, but because of the current catastrophe unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa. Christians are being lined up and beheaded on Libya’s beaches. Christians are being tossed off migrant boats to drown in the Mediterranean. Christians are being shot in shopping malls in Kenya. Christian women and girls are being raped and turned into sex-slaves. The atrocities of 1915 are recurring before our very eyes. How will the international community respond to this catastrophe?