In context: Francis' comments on Armenian genocide

On Feb. 18, 1946, Pope Pius XII made history by inducting 32 clerics into the College of Cardinals, the largest number ever at one time.

His appointments circled the globe. Chile, China, Cuba, Mozambique and Peru received their first cardinals. The Netherlands had a cardinal, its first since 1534. Several had made history themselves by defying Adolf Hitler.

Still, the most discussed nomination was that of the first name on the list of new cardinals, Gregory Peter Agagianian, the Armenian patriarch. Vatican insiders said that this extraordinary appointment in part was a papal gesture to acknowledge, and bemoan, what had come to be known as the Armenian Genocide.

First of all, what is Armenia? Who are the Armenians? The Armenians occupy territory with Iran to the south, Turkey to the West, and Russian Georgia to the North. Once independent, Armenia long ago fell to the superior military power of the Muslim Turks and the Orthodox Russians.

As far as religion was concerned, the Russians were not that different. Under the Romanov czars, until 1917, Russia officially was an Orthodox Christian state. Turkey was different. While the sultans reigned, Turkey was rigidly Muslim. A revolution overthrew the last sultan in 1922, and Turkey became, in terms of law, strictly secular, but this hardly warmed Turkish attitudes toward Armenians or vice versa.

Armenia has been Christian since ancient times. Armenians like to say that their country was the first Christian nation. At some point, as Christianity divided between East and West, Armenia’s church broke ties with Rome. A few centuries ago, a group sought to re-establish these ties. Cardinal Agagianian headed this group in 1946.

Armenian Catholics still very much exist, worshipping in their own Rite, very much united with the Pope. The great majority of Armenians today is Christian but separated from Rome.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia became independent in 1991. It is a member of the United Nations and has embassies in Washington and at the Holy See, as well as elsewhere in capitals around the world.

This is part of the backdrop of the remarks of Pope Francis on Sunday, in while he condemned the “Armenian Genocide,” hardly anything new, by the way, for popes. The current Armenian president, a Christian but not a Catholic, was present.

Turkish officials long have insisted that no genocide ever occurred, at least at Turkish hands. The strong reaction by Turkey’s present leaders to the pope’s remarks on April 12 is not new.

Many, arguably most, historians, however, conclude that indeed Turkish authorities conducted a systematic, widespread, wholesale slaughter of Armenians as the First World War was raging.

In addition to old feelings of estrangement, Turkey feared the attitude regarding the war among Armenians at the time. In the war, Russia, on Armenia’s eastern border, a Christian state, was fighting Muslim Turkey, west of Armenia. It was a chaotic period, and Turkish figures always have said that in fact a civil war was underway in Armenia, and all these people lost their lives violently as a result.

Other scholars say that Armenians, as Armenians, were targeted for annihilation.

How many died? No one knows the exact figure, but some educated guesses go as high as 1.5 million. Not only were people just cut down, but the intellectually and religiously prominent were special targets.

Pope Francis, as did his predecessors, beginning with Blessed Pope Paul VI, visited Turkey and was welcome by Turkey’s modern leaders. He wishes to strengthen cordial ties with Muslims. Nothing is to be gained by aloofness or hostility.

Still, right is right, and fact is fact. Human life is so cheap, and it has been so cheap. Six million Jews were killed during the Hitler tyranny, untold millions under Communism. With the horrors presently happening in the Middle East, the situation seems not to be improving.

Whitewashing past crimes achieves nothing.  Terrorism is terrorism.         

Msgr. Owen Campion is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.