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Turkey calls back its ambassador to the Vatican

April 12, 2015

Turkey has called back its envoy to the Vatican after Pope Francis described the 1915 mass killings of Armenians as "the first genocide of the 20th century." Ankara has long denied that the deaths amounted to genocide.

Papst hält Messe zum 100. Jahrestag des Massenmords an Armeniern
Image: Reuters/Gentile

The pope's comment had caused "a problem of trust," a Turkish official said on Sunday. He emphasized that his country was "deeply sorry and disappointed" that Pope Francis had called the 1915 mass killings of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire a genocide. Later on Sunday, Turkey called back its ambassador to the Vatican for consultation, according to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara.

Pope Francis made the declaration earlier on Sunday during a Mass in Rome's Saint Peter's Basilica marking the 100th anniversary of the slaughter, prompting Turkey to summon the Vatican ambassador to seek an explanation.

In a statement following this meeting, Turkey said that the pope's comment contradicted his message of peace and dialogue delivered during his visit to Turkey in November. The statement also criticized the pope's remarks because he only mentioned the pains suffered by Christian Armenians and not Muslims or other religious groups.

The first of 'three massive and unprecedented genocides'

The message was received with gratitude by Armenian representatives.

"We are deeply grateful to His Holiness Pope Francis for the idea of this unprecedented liturgy...which symbolizes our solidarity with the people of the Christian world," said Armenian President Serzh Sargyan in a speech. The head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Aram I, also thanked the Pope for his clear condemnation.

The 78-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church described the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as the first of three "massive and unprecedented" genocides last century, followed by the Holocaust and Stalinism.

Ankara acknowledges that many Christian Armenians died in clashes with the Ottoman soldiers beginning in 1915, when Armenia was part of the empire ruled from Istanbul, but denies that hundreds of thousands were killed and that this amounted to genocide.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered condolences for the mass killings for the first time in 2014, when he was prime minister. However, the country still blames unrest and famine for many of the deaths.

Comparisons between Armenians and Christians persecuted by IS

Although the killings were not openly driven by religious motives, the pope drew comparisons between the Armenian victims, who were Christians, and modern Christian refugees fleeing Islamic militants. He said genocide continued today against Christians "who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death - decapitated, crucified, burned alive - or forced to leave their homeland."

The pope referred to "Islamic State" (IS) militants persecuting Christians and members of other religious communities who do not share their ultra-radical interpretation of Sunni Islam.

However, Francis is not the first pope to call the massacre in the Ottoman Empire a genocide. In his remarks, he cited a declaration signed by John Paul II and the Armenian church leader Karenkin II from 2001, describing the mass killings of Armenians as the first genocide of the 20th century.

das/rc (Reuters, AP, AFP)