Pope Francis set off a diplomatic storm yesterday when he referred to the genocide of the Armenians at a service in St. Peter’s Basilica this weekend. The Turkish Foreign Ministry denounced the remarks as baseless and unfair, and summoned the Vatican’s Turkish representative to appear for a tongue lashing.
By the standards of Vatican diplomacy, this was an explosion. Conscious of the vulnerability of Christian minorities around the world, popes are usually circumspect when touching on controversial diplomatic topics. Francis’ words will certainly provoke a harsh response from Turkey where, despite very slow and painful progress at coming to grips with the legacy of violence and persecution that shaped modern Turkey, it remains illegal to refer to the Armenian massacres as a genocide.
It’s a controversial subject. Many western governments, including that of the United States, refrain from characterizing the brutal massacres of up to 1.5 million (Christian) Armenians across Turkey during World War One as a genocide to avoid angering the Turks. Turks have some legitimate grounds for resentment; Western historians, politicians and religious thinkers generally do a bad job at remembering the many massacres and expulsions suffered by Muslims (and sometimes Jews) as the Ottoman Empire was gradually forced out of the Balkans. The massacres of the Armenians, however, were more horrific, more centrally organized and much larger in scale than the other eruptions of violence that accompanied the Ottoman decline.
In the short run, the Pope’s words will probably not accelerate the slow process by which more and more Turkish scholars and thinkers are coming to grips with some ugly truths about the past. Erdogan and his Islamist allies will likely pounce on the Papal pronouncement. For President Erdogan, an attack on Turkey’s ‘honor’ by the world’s most prominent Christian leader is political catnip; it allows him to conflate the causes of Turkish nationalism and Islamism as he faces the fallout of an economy in trouble.
In the longer run, Turkey’s ability to come to grips with this issue remains a key indicator of where the country is headed. A country that cannot face the truth about its past faces crippling disabilities in the contemporary world. An honest reckoning with Turkey’s Ottoman past remains a precondition for the kind of future that most Turks want.
But Pope Francis wasn’t only talking to Turkey and, sadly, genocide is a topical subject in today’s Middle East. As horrific violence against Christians and other minority religious communities by Muslim fanatics spreads across the Middle East and Africa, Pope Francis seems to be abandoning the Church’s modern tradition of speaking softly about inter communal problems. By calling the fight against ISIS a just war and now by denouncing Turkish massacres of Armenians during World War One as genocide, Francis seems to be moving to a tougher line on Islamist attacks against Christians.
With millions of Catholics and other Christians scattered across the Middle East (in numbers that have diminished rapidly over the last 120 years as persecution and emigration took their toll), the Vatican has long tried to defuse confrontation and taken a ‘softly, softly’ approach to inter-religious relations. But that seems to be changing as levels of persecution and threat intensify.
In both the Christian and the Muslim worlds, people listen to popes. Francis’ comments about both the Armenians and ISIS will capture the attention of fanatics in the jihadiverse, and intensify their focus on a religious battle against the West. ISIS in Libya has already threatened Italy and Rome because of their links to the papacy. Pope Francis’ increasingly visible stance against Islamist violence will not go unnoticed.
The Christian world, too, will respond. The Pope’s stance will contribute to a rising climate of Christian militancy in Africa and elsewhere as Christians increasingly tire of turning the other cheek under Islamist attacks. Francis’ remarks will have an effect in Europe and North America as well, where growing concern over Islamist violence at home and abroad is gradually making itself felt.
In the years after the attacks of 9/11, western liberals sought to defuse a potential clash of civilizations by reaching out to moderate Muslims and promoting an idea of western civilization as resting on universal and secular values while de-emphasizing its historic Christian roots. President Obama has made this the centerpiece of his own strategy in the war against Islamist fanatics that he fights but prefers not to name. That strategy is running into trouble as moderates inside the Islamic world lose ground to the fanatics and as violent groups become more widespread, more effective and more radical.
Pope Francis, who is well aware that Christians across much of Africa live in the presence of something that is beginning to look like a fully fledged if relatively low-intensity religious war, seems to have decided that a strategy of silent conciliation is no longer adequate given the rising threat. His denunciation of a century-old genocide isn’t just about ancient history. It is an intervention in contemporary politics, and a warning that the danger of religious conflict continues to grow.
Wars of religion are very much a part of the contemporary world. The Sunni-Shi’a conflict has wrecked Syria and Iraq, and now threatens to engulf more of the Middle East. Hindu-Muslim tensions in South Asia are deepening; Buddhist violence against Muslims in Burma has led to terrible suffering. The Christian-Muslim conflicts in Africa, and the violence directed against mostly helpless Christian minorities from Pakistan through much of the Middle East are part of this pattern of rising religious tension.
As someone who counts a number of embattled Christian minority communities across the Middle East among the sheep of his flock, Pope Francis does not want to make their lives worse by gratuitously raising the level of confrontation. But he appears to think that there are times when even a cautious shepherd needs to cry wolf; 100 years after the Armenian massacres, savage enemies have surrounded the sheepfold.