Talking Turkey

Jewish Light Editorial

As we recognize Yom HaShoah this week and as anti-Semitism has exploded across Europe, one of the most powerful stances against racial and ethnic hatred has been taken by none other than Pope Francis.

The pontiff over the weekend made a historic statement describing the 1915 massacre by Turkish forces of 1.5 million Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Predictably, his statement was applauded by Armenians and many others who have supported such a description.

And in a predictably pathetic show to the contrary, the pope’s bold assertion received a vehemently angry response from the government of Turkey, which recalled its ambassador to the Vatican to protest the pope’s statement.

According to reporting in the New York Times by Jim Yardley and Sebnem Arsu, Pope Francis made the comments at a Mass for the centenary of the start of the mass killings of Armenians. Then, in a later message to all Armenians, he indicated that the “seemingly piecemeal global violence of the 21st century represented a ‘third world war.’ “ He also described his frustration with what he considers global indifference toward the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere by militants with the Islamic State. 

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“Today, too, we are experiencing a sort of genocide created by general and collective indifference,” he said. 

The term “genocide” was coined by the Polish-Jewish writer Raphael Lempkin in his book “Axis Rule in Europe,” which was published in 1944. In 1948, in direct response to the Holocaust, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention for the prevention of genocide and to punish the organizers of genocide. 

By August 2014, 146 nations, including the United States, have ratified it. 

Within the text of the Genocide Convention, not only is mass murder outlawed, but also several other actions of an extreme nature, taken against groups of individuals. It does not give a legal definition of the term “genocide,” but the term has come to be understood as an intent to destroy, wholly or partially, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group per se.

Of note is the fact that the only time since the adoption of the Genocide Convention that the term has been officially used by the UN to describe a mass murder was the case of Rwanda in 1994, when 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by Hutu militia using machetes, while UN peacekeepers stood by without intervening. 

Several other mass killings in addition to the Armenian massacre have not been designated as genocides by the UN General Assembly, including claims regarding the murder of blacks in Southern Sudan, Kurds in Iraq, Nagas in India, communists and Chinese in Indonesia and the Ibos during the Biafran War in Nigeria. Nor was the systematic killing of over 1 million “intellectuals” and other anti-regime people by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia given that description.

The Times piece reports that “many Armenians have long demanded that Turkey acknowledge that about 1.5 million of their forebears were actually killed in a systematic genocide,” and points out that more than 20 countries have passed parliamentary bills recognizing the killings as genocide, while nations like Greece and Switzerland have called for criminal charges against those who deny it.

The Turkish government continues to insist that the deaths of the Armenians during the World War I period was the result of a “civil war,” and was not a genocide. On Sunday, Turkish officials in the capital city of Ankara summoned the Vatican’s ambassador to Turkey and notified him of their government’s “grave disappointment and sadness” over the pope’s remarks, which were supposedly “away from historical facts.”

The Armenian massacre was a genocide as a matter of historical fact, and it is high time that the bullying of the Turkish government to prevent its acknowledgment was stopped.

 Many Jewish organizations and individuals have supported the position that the Armenian massacre was a genocide. Last month, the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council, were among the co-sponsors of a lecture by Nicole E. Vartanian, acting director of the Children of Armenia Fund, about the “Enduring Lessons and Legacies of the Armenian Genocide.”

There is a quote anecdotally attributed to Adolf Hitler, that when he was asked whether the world would respond to the mass murder of Jews, Gypsies (Roman) and other groups, he responded, “Who today cares about what the Turks did to the Armenians?” 

It turns out that many people care, including the courageous and principled Pope Francis.