Pope Francis described the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century” at a 100th anniversary Mass on Sunday, prompting Turkey to summon the Holy See’s ambassador in Ankara in protest.
Muslim Turkey accepts that many Christian Armenians died in clashes with Ottoman soldiers beginning in 1915, when Armenia was part of the empire ruled from Istanbul, but denies hundreds of thousands were killed and that this amounted to genocide.
It was the first time a Pope has publicly pronounced the word “genocide” for the massacre, repeating a term used by some European and South American countries but avoided by the United States and some others to maintain good relations with an important ally.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II and Armenian Apostolic Church Supreme Patriarch Kerek in II called it “the first genocide of the 20th century” in a joint written statement.
Francis, who has disregarded many aspects of protocol since becoming pope two years ago, uttered the phrase during a private meeting at the Vatican with an Armenian delegation in 2013, prompting a strong protest from Ankara.
As the archbishop of Buenos Aires before becoming the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Jorge Maria Bergoglio had already publicly characterised the mass killings as genocide.
After Francis’s remarks on Sunday, Turkey swiftly summoned the Vatican’s ambassador in Ankara to protest and seek an explanation, a senior official told Reuters.