ISTANBUL—By using the word “genocide” in remembering the victims of the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Turks a hundred years ago, Pope Francis has angered Ankara. But even worse for Turkey’s government, the pope may have opened the way for Barack Obama to follow suit.
Every year, Turkish politicians tend to get nervous in the weeks before April 24. The big question asked every year is whether the U.S. president will use the g-word in his traditional message to mark the day the first Armenians were rounded up in Istanbul in 1915. So far, Obama has pleased his ally in Ankara by avoiding the much-feared word, opting for the Armenian term “Meds Yeghern”—great calamity—instead.
But this year, on the 100th anniversary of the massacres and death marches that killed up to 1.5 million Armenians, things might be different. “Will Obama say ‘genocide’ like the pope?” the Turkish news website Radikal asked Monday.
Armenia certainly hopes so. President Serge Sarkisian, who attended the Mass in Rome where Francis spoke, welcomed the pope’s “powerful message to the international community” and told the AP that “the words of the leader of a church with 1 billion followers cannot but have a strong impact.”
The fact that the pope has used the word will raise pressure on Obama and other world leaders to do the same. A use of the word “genocide” by the U.S. president would be a fatal blow to Turkey’s efforts to block broad international recognition of the mass killings as an attempt to systematically wipe out a whole people. It could also lead to compensation claims against Turkey.
Armenians in the United States immediately called on Obama to follow the pope’s lead. Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), said in a statement that Francis had set the stage “for President Obama to honor his own pledge to recognize this horrific crime.” Hamparian recalled that Obama had spoken of genocide before becoming president. Recognition by Obama now would “end a truly shameful era of complicity in Ankara’s efforts to deny the truth and obstruct justice for this crime.”
ANCA also said 15 U.S. senators had signed a letter to the White House calling on Obama to recognize the genocide when he marks the centennial of the killings later this month. A similar letter in the House also was being drawn up.
No wonder the government in Ankara was livid after the pope’s sermon on Sunday. The foreign ministry summoned the Vatican’s ambassador, Antonio Lucibello, to deliver a strong protest and recalled the Turkish ambassador at the Vatican, Mehmet Pacaci, for consultations. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused Francis of spreading “hatred and animosity.”
The pope’s statement hit Ankara out of the blue. In recent weeks, Ambassador Pacaci comfortably predicted that his lobbying work in the Vatican had made sure the pope would not speak of genocide. When Francis shattered Turkey’s hopes, it came as a “shock,” as the mass-circulation newspaper Hurriyet put it.
With his sermon, the pope also blew a big hole in Turkey’s plan to deflect attention from the approaching centennial of the Armenian killings. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invited world leaders to Turkey on the days around April 24 to commemorate the Turks’s victory of the World War I battle of Gallipoli. He even invited Sarkisian, who declined.
As Turkey’s prime minister before becoming president last year, Erdogan issued a statement that for the first time acknowledged the suffering of the Armenians, although it stopped short of an apology. In another effort to blunt Armenia’s push for international recognition of the genocide, Erdogan has suggested creating an independent committee of historians to look into the events of 1915. He also promised that Turkey would abide by whatever conclusion the experts would draw.
But the pope’s statement has in effect killed Erdogan’s strategy to prevent genocide recognition by major international players and keep global attention to the Armenian issue as low as possible as the centennial approaches. “1915 crisis with the pope,” blared Hurriyet’s front page on Monday. The pro-government Star told the pope to “mind your own business.”
While some intellectuals and academics in Turkey call on their country to face the past and acknowledge that genocide took place in 1915, most Turks agree with the government that the killing of the Armenians was part of the chaos that accompanied the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and point out that many Muslim Turks were killed as well. The country’s two biggest opposition parties joined the government in criticizing the pope’s remarks.
Given that political atmosphere in Turkey itself, Francis’s statement gives Erdogan and the government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu a chance to portray Turkey as a victim of foreign powers ahead of parliamentary elections on June 7. Francis was “the pope of the Armenians,” the pro-government newspaper Turkiye said Monday.