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Turkey, the Vatican and a ‘G-word’ whirlwind

Sinem Cengiz

Published: Updated:

As we approach April 24, the date which marks the centennial of the tragic events of 1915 that led to the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, several sides have started to get involve in the Turkish-Armenian dispute over the events of 1915.

The tragic events of 1915 are a greatly controversial matter in Turkey and Armenia, as Armenians say Turkey committed “genocide.” But Turkey says the events do not amount to genocide and that both Turks and Armenians were killed.

On Sunday, Pope Francis’s remarks acknowledging the 1915 events as “genocide” have further escalated the tension ahead of April 24. The pope’s remarks that the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was “the first genocide of the 20th century” and his call to the international community to recognize it as such sparked a rift between Turkey and Vatican.

Ankara summoned the Vatican’s ambassador Antonio Lucibello on Sunday, and recalled Turkish Ambassador to Holy See Mehmet Pacaci. Ankara said the pope’s comments had caused a “problem of trust” and contradicted with his message of peace and discriminatory.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also lashed out at the pope’s remarks, saying his comments were “inappropriate” and “one-sided.” “To read these sorrows in a one-sided way is inappropriate for the pope and the authority that he holds,” added Turkish prime minister.

“Hatred is stirred”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tweeted that “The pope’s statement, which is far from historic and legal truths, is unacceptable. Religious positions are not places where unfounded claims are made and hatred is stirred.”

Turkish opposition also harshly reacted to the pope’s remarks. In a statement, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Faruk Loğoğlu, stated that the pope’s remarks were not only damaging Turkish-Armenian relations, but were also “provocative and destructive” at a time when tensions between the Christian and Islamic world are rising.

The Armenian movement throughout the world is actively lobbying for the recognition of their claims, for the 2015 commemoration of the events, and has been preparing to commemorate the tragic events on April 24 with the attendance of a number of world leaders.

Several European countries recognize the massacres as genocide, while some countries, such as the United States, have refrained from using the term “genocide” officially in order to protect their ties with Turkey.

Needless to say, the pope’s remarks, which came at the 100th anniversary of the mass killings of the Armenians, may lead to the rise of the number of the countries that recognize the 1915 events as “genocide.” That is, the pope’s remarks have the possibility of creating a domino effect in the international community.

But the pope’s position over the 1915 events was actually not surprising. In 2006, before he became pontiff, he urged Turkey to recognize the genocide as the “gravest crime of Ottoman Turkey against the Armenian people and humanity.”

Several European countries recognize the massacres as genocide, while some countries, such as the United States, have refrained from using the term

Moreover, the pope’s remarks have close relations with his background. The pope had close ties with the Armenian community when he was a cardinal in Argentina, which is not only his homeland but also a homeland to an important number of Armenians whose ancestors migrated from the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Armenians in Argentina, a country that recognizes the 1915 events as a genocide, have close relations with the church. The pope’s sympathy towards the Armenians is also due to the common psychology of being an immigrant. The pope is the son of Italian immigrants.

When the pope was appointed in 2013, it was Patriarch of the Armenian Catholic Church Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni who visited him. This was an important step taken by the Armenians in order to gain support of the pontiff.

Also, in 2013, Armenia appointed an ambassador to the Holy See by presidential decree. Mikael Minasyan, son-in-law of Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan and deputy chief of the President’s Office, was Armenian’s first ambassador to Vatican.

Critical period

According to Deniz Kılıçer, who served as the minister-counselor at the Turkish Embassy to the Holy See, the pope’s remarks strengthen the hands of Armenians and this situation has angered Turkey. However, Kılıçer says that beside Armenians' strong lobby activities, the weakness of the Turkish lobby in the Vatican has led to the pope’s remarks.

The pope was the first foreign dignitary at President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's controversial palace when he visited Turkey last November. His visit was considered as “remarkable” as it was the first visit by a pope to Turkey since 2006.

Kılıçer says the visit remained symbolic as two sides didn’t touch upon the Armenian issue, adding that if Turkey had enough influence on the Vatican, the pontiff would refrain from using the term “genocide” at such a critical period.

Needless to say, the situation with Vatican is part of the lack of Turkish strategy for April 24. Turkey failed to have a long-term strategy against Armenian efforts.

According to reports circulated in the Turkish media, Turkish ambassador Pacaci has engaged in successful diplomatic efforts in persuading the pope to refuse the Armenians' request which called for the pontiff to hold a religious ceremony in Yerevan.

However, Pope Francis’ remarks at a mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica to mark the 100th anniversary of the mass killings are more important than holding a ceremony in Yerevan. The pope was aware of what he said and was sure of the Turkish reaction. Yet, this incident doesn’t seem to go beyond the current situation and harm Turkish-Vatican relations in general.

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Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst based in Athens. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. She was also the former diplomatic correspondent for Today’s Zaman newspaper, English daily in Turkey. She is currently researching on Turkish-Saudi relations to complete her MA in International Relations. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz"

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.