–– Sito di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA –– Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa A missionary look on the life of the world and the church –– VIDA y MISIÓN – VIE et MISSION – VIDA e MISSÃO ––
As this weekend’s rupture between the Vatican and the Turkish government demonstrated, upsetting people has become an integral part of being pope these days. On April 12th Pope Francis delivered an address in which he came down more publicly than ever before in favour of the Armenian interpretation of the state-sanctioned persecution in Anatolia a hundred years ago that killed as many as 1.5m Armenians.
At a mass attended by Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, Francis called it “the first genocide of the 20th century”. Turkey hit back by recalling its ambassador to the Holy See for consultations and declaring that the pope’s remarks were based on “prejudice”.
Roman pontiffs are in a better position than most chief executives to speak undiplomatic truths. They have no career prospects to worry about, and since they (along with most of the world’s 1.2 billion baptised Catholics) believe they are God’s chief representatives on earth, they feel they have a moral duty to tell it like it is—or, at least, how they believe it to be. The deceptively mild-mannered Benedict XVI succeeded at different times in offending Muslims, Jews and large numbers of Latin Americans, in some cases unnecessarily.
His successor Francis has carried on the tradition. But until this week, his barbs were directed mostly at people who had few means of retaliation, such as worldly Vatican bigwigs and capitalists lacking in social conscience. The Turkish government, on the other hand, is making the Vatican pay a diplomatic price.
Why the fuss? This is not the first time that Francis has called the Armenian genocide by its name. He did the same on June 3rd, when he met a delegation of Armenians led by a patriarch of the Middle Eastern diaspora. Then, the Turkish authorities limited themselves to expressing “disappointment” and calling in the Vatican’s envoy for a telling-off. But there is a big difference between making such a remark at a small event that went nearly unreported in the international media, and doing so in a much-awaited speech 12 days ahead of the Armenian genocide’s official centenary commemoration.
Turkish diplomats are understood to have lobbied hard to prevent Francis from referring to the Armenian massacres as genocide. Turkey has fought for decades to prevent widespread acceptance of a term that places the Ottoman authorities of the early 20th century on the same plane with the Nazis, Stalin, Pol Pot or the perpetrators of atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia. The effort seems quixotic, given that Raphael Lemkin, the inventor of the term “genocide”, used the Armenian case as his model.
In deciding to ignore Turkish entreaties, the pope and his diplomatic advisers in the Secretariat of State will have weighed two factors. On the one hand, there is no Muslim state with which the Holy See has built warmer relations than Turkey. Both Francis and Benedict have visited the country, and Vatican officials recognise that under its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has gone further than ever in acknowledging what happened to the Armenians.
But such goodwill apparently counted for less than the Vatican’s growing desperation over Islamist persecution of Christians, and what officials see as the failure of Muslim clerics and politicians to effectively oppose it. Recent months have seen mass killings of Christians by Muslims in Nigeria, Libya and Kenya. Top of the Vatican’s list of concerns are Iraq and Syria, where the pope and his advisers believe they are witnessing a decisive phase in the eradication of Christianity from countries where it has been present for millennia. Turkey’s equivocal response to the activities of Islamic State has not helped.
For more than a decade, the Vatican has been the scene of a tug-of-war between proponents of careful dialogue with Islam and advocates of bluntness. The latter group feel that tact has got Christians nowhere, and that plain speaking is required even if it proves offensive. This group clearly had the upper hand under Benedict. Francis’s latest comment suggests they are back in the ascendancy.