In a few days, it will be exactly one hundred years since the Ottoman Turks started a genocidal program to eliminate their own Armenian citizens. An estimated 1.5 million Christian Armenians died in a persecution that continued until well after World War One. It wasn’t just Armenians. Assyrians and Greeks, both Christian communities, also perished.
Yesterday, in a mass attended by the Armenian president in Rome, Pope Francis referred to the Turkish action as “genocide”. Naturally, the Turks see things differently, claiming a smaller number died and that they were simply casualties of war. There was no deliberate policy to wipe out Christians. The Turkish Ambassador to the Holy See was quickly recalled yesterday following the Pope’s comment.
Popes have been around a long time, almost 2,000 years in fact. And the Vatican has a long memory.
One thousand years ago, it was Turks killing Christians that provoked Pope Urban II to call western Europe to arms, launching the Crusades that led to two centuries of conflict between Muslims and Christians.
In 1453, the Turkish conquest of Constantinople ended the Roman Empire in the East. Persecution and discrimination against Christians followed in Asia Minor. During a tour of Turkey three years ago, I asked our tour guide three times what happened to all the Christians when the Turks took over. I never got a straight answer. My own research concludes that many fled the country, others were slaughtered, and many more were sold into slavery. Only a small number were allowed to continue to practice their faith.
In 1529 and again in 1683 it was Catholic troops that saved Vienna from conquest by the Ottoman Turks.
Although relations have been much better in recent decades, it was a Turk who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II on 13th May, 1981.
And now the Vatican risks tension between Rome and Ankara by bringing up the Armenian slaughter of a century ago.
The reason for this is probably more due to recent and ongoing events in the wider Middle East. All over what used to be the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, Christians are being murdered by Islamic extremists. In Syria, Iraq and Libya the slaughter of Christians continues unabated.
Furthermore, Turkey has not condemned this.
Western leaders have chosen not to address this humanitarian crisis.
Could a pope once again call the West to action against Islamic atrocities?