Delicately, Pope deplores 1915 killings of Armenians

September 27, 2001
Source: The New York Times

By Melinda Henneberger

YEREVAN, Armenia, Sept. 26 - Pope John Paul II today pulled off the delicate diplomatic and linguistic feat of deploring the 1915 massacre that Armenians consider genocide by the Turks - without offending Turkey, a key Islamic American ally.

At an emotional ceremony at a memorial to the victims, Armenians from all over the world listened closely to see if the pope would use the word "genocide."

His Armenian hosts, who invited the pope here on the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity as the state religion, want international recognition of their view that 1.5 million Armenians were systematically annihilated when the Ottoman Turks forced them out of what is now Turkey.

Though the pope had issued a document last year calling it a genocide, the Turks had asked that he avoid using that word here. In their version of history, several hundred thousand Armenians under Ottoman rule sided with Russian invaders during World War I and died fighting.

By most historical accounts, the Ottoman empire killed more than one million Armenians in a campaign aimed at eliminating Armenians from what is now Turkey.

In the end, the pope said nothing to whitewash the issue. He said Roman Catholics were "appalled by the terrible violence done to the Armenian people," who were "brought to the brink of annihilation."

But in his remarks, in English, he used not the word "genocide" but the Armenian term "metz yeghern." This signifies genocide to people here, but translates literally as "the big calamity."
"Listen, O Lord," the pope prayed, "to the lament that rises from this place, to the call of the dead from the depths of the metz yeghern, the cry of innocent blood that pleads like the blood of Abel, like Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more."

Later in the day, Turkish officials said they were satisfied, in part because the word "Turk" had not been mentioned, either. (Actually, the pope never blames the perpetrators on his visits to the sites of Nazi concentration camps and monuments to victims of the Soviet regime, where he prays for the fallen.)

Armenians had no complaints, either. At an ecumenical service tonight, Catholicos Karekin II, the Armenian Apostolic Church's supreme patriarch, used the same term the pope had, "metz yeghern," in an address in Armenian, though the remarks distributed in English did translate the phrase as "genocide."

At the earlier service at the memorial, some in the crowd wept as the 81-year-old pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, slowly made his way down stairs to lay a red rose at the eternal flame in memory of the victims. He prayed, then climbed back out, hand in hand with Karekin II, whose church broke from Rome in the fifth century.
When specifically asked if he minded the pope's linguistic solution, Jirair Sogomian, of Paramus, N.J, said no. He said that "for the English-speaking public, I would say it would have been more explicit" to have used the word genocide. "But then again," he said to reporters, "you can learn a couple of Armenian words, and it won't hurt you."

A local Armenian priest said he did question the pope's efforts to reach out to Muslims, as he did in multiethnic Kazakhstan before coming here. "When the pope comes here, he'll see what Islam is," the Armenian priest said.

But others in the crowd disagreed, and said the pope's message of tolerance was the right one.
"If the Muslims in Syria had not opened their gates to us, not one of us would be alive today," said Anton Totonjian, an Armenian priest from Sydney.

At tonight's service in the new cathedral here, the pope spoke of the need to move beyond the most painful history "in order to overcome past resentments and prejudices."