VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is bringing a message of peace and solidarity to Armenia as it marks the centennial of the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians that Francis himself has called a “genocide.” But he may sidestep the politically charged word as he broadens his concern about current atrocities against Christians across the region and beyond.
Francis has frequently denounced the slaughter of Christians by Islamic extremists across the Middle East, saying the indiscriminate attacks against religious minorities is an “ecumenism of blood” — a martyrdom shared by Christians no matter their confession. Recently, he said he prefers to use the term “martyrdom” over “genocide” when describing the persecution of Christians, suggesting that he may avoid using the word during the trip.
All eyes then will be on Francis’ first major speech upon arrival Friday, delivered to President Serzh Sargsyan and Armenian officials at the presidential palace in the capital, Yerevan. The pope caps the day with a visit to the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin, where he will stay as a guest of the Oriental Orthodox patriarch of the Apostolic Church, Karekin II.
Over the following three days, Francis will pray at Armenia’s genocide memorial, release a dove of peace near Armenia’s closed border with Turkey and pray for peace during an ecumenical prayer service with Karekin.
The Vatican has long cheered the Armenian cause, holding up the poor nation of 3 million mostly Orthodox Christians as a bastion of faith and martyrdom in a largely Muslim region, and the first nation that established Christianity as a state religion in 301.
Armenians, for their part, have cheered Francis’ willingness to rile Turkey by terming the 1915 massacres of Armenians a “genocide” during a Mass last year to mark the 100th anniversary of the slaughter. They are expected to turn out in droves even though Catholics represent a tiny minority in the former Soviet republic.
Many historians consider the massacres of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians a genocide, a classification that carries legal and financial implications given Armenian claims for restitution. Turkey rejects the term, says the death figure is inflated and that people died on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed amid World War I.
But in an indication that the Vatican wants to move away from using the term, Francis avoided using it in a video message to Armenians released on the eve of his journey. Instead he spoke of the “sufferings among the most terrible that humanity can remember.”
The Armenian ambassador to the Holy See, Mikayel Minasyan, said it almost doesn’t matter if Francis utters the word, given his April 2015 pronouncement from the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica that it was the “first genocide of the 20th century.”
“He has already said it,” Minasyan said in a phone interview from Yerevan. “The fact that he is going to the memorial is worth more than the word or whether it is pronounced or not.”
He expected that Francis would speak about the massacres in the context of current atrocities against Christians: “What we are seeing today is part of a process that began 100 years ago,” he said.
The head of the Armenian National Archives says Armenia will officially ask the pope to open the Vatican’s archives into the massacre, given the existing evidence of Vatican diplomacy in favor of Armenians against the Ottoman attacks.
“Access to the Vatican’s archive will help to tell the truth to the world about the events of 1915 in the Ottoman empire that no one will be able to dismiss,” said archives director, Amatuni Virabyan.
Despite the devastation the slaughter has had on Armenia, seven decades of atheist communism was worse, said the Rev. Krikor Badichah, vice rector of the Pontifical Armenian College in Rome.
“People lost their faith totally,” he said. “Yes, there was a genocide and it had a very serious impact on the faith. But it also increased people’s faith, because they were Christian and didn’t want to deny their faith. And for that, they were killed.”
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