The Vatican and the Armenians

Pope Francis, on April 12th at St. Peter’s Basilica, in the presence of His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, and His Beatitude Nerses Bedros XIX, Patriarch of Cilicia of Armenian Catholics, said the following:

“Dear Armenian Brothers and Sisters,

“A century has passed since that horrific massacre which was a true martyrdom of your people, in which many innocent people died as confessors and martyrs for the name of Christ (cf. John Paul II and Karekin II, Common Declaration, Etchmiadzin, 27 September 2001). Even today, there is not an Armenian family untouched by the loss of loved ones due to that tragedy: it truly was “Metz Yeghern”, the “Great Evil”, as it is known by Armenians. On this anniversary, I feel a great closeness to your people and I wish to unite myself spiritually to the prayers which rise up from your hearts, your families and your communities.

“This faith also accompanied and sustained your people during the tragic experience one hundred years ago ‘in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century’ (John Paul II and Karekin II, Common Declaration, Etchmiadzin, 27 September 2001). Pope Benedict XV, who condemned the First World War as a ‘senseless slaughter’ (AAS, IX [1917], 429), did everything in his power until the very end to stop it, continuing the efforts at mediation already begun by Pope Leo XIII when confronted with the ‘deadly events’ of 1894-96. For this reason, Pope Benedict XV wrote to Sultan Mehmed V, pleading that the many innocents be saved (cf. Letter of 10 September 1915) and, in the Secret Consistory of 6 December 1915, he declared with great dismay, “Miserrima Armenorum gens ad interitum prope ducitur” (AAS, VII [1915], 510)”.

This was reported around the world as the Pope having called the events in Eastern Anatolia in 1915 a genocide.

Pope Francis was either unaware or did not mention that his famous predecessor, Pope Benedict XV, in 1920, had tried to obtain the release of those who were held by the British on suspicion of what Pope Francis called “the first genocide of the twentieth century.”

The documentary proof for this is in the British archives at Kew in the form of two documents. One document is the letter submitted to the British authorities by the Vatican. It has been translated from the French:

“Vatican, February 17, 1920
“The benevolent intervention of the Holy Father has been requested for some POWs who are being interned at the Island of Malta by the British authorities.
“The POWs being referred to here are SAID Halim Pasha, former Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, and eight or nine individuals (including DJERDED BEY) who are members of the Committee of “Union and Progress” of the Young Turks.

“We implore, if they are not granted absolute freedom, that at the least their captivity is softened and that their treatment is made consistent to their social status.

“His Holiness did not hesitate to make such a request, and he asks me to recommend a special care to be given to Your Excellency.

“Performing my best for this august work, I hope that it will not be impossible for Your Excellency to take this matter to heart and to call upon the most benevolent attention of the authorities.

“With this hope, I present to Your Excellency my thanks in advance and I pray for you to kindly accept this etc. etc.

“Signed, P. Cardinal Gasparri
“His Excellency, The Count of Salis etc. etc. etc.”

The other document is a note concerning the Vatican’s letter by the British ambassador in Vatican. This document can be found at: The National Archives, Kew Gardens (London) FO 371/5089/E 1114

“Palazzo Borghes, Rome
“February 25th 1920
“My Lord,

“I have the honour to enclose copy of a note from the Cardinal Secretary of State relative to Said Halim Pasha, Ex-Grand Vizer of the Ottoman Empire, and eight or nine other persons including Djevded Bey, all of whom stated to belong to the Committee of Union and Progress and who are at present interned in Malta.

“The Pope begs that your Lordship will give the matter favourable consideration, expressing his hopes that if absolute Liberty cannot be granted to these prisoners, they may at least be allowed special privileges consonant with their rank.

“I have the honour to be
“With the highest respect, My Lord, Your Lordship’s most obedient humble servant,
“Count of Salis
“The Earl Curzon of Kedleston, K.G.
“etc. etc. etc.”

The two Turks named in the letter, whom the Vatican sought the release of, were intimately connected to what Pope Francis called “the first genocide of the twentieth century.” Said Halim Pasha, the ex-Grand Vizier, was later assassinated by Armenian death squads who accused him of complicity in the deaths of Armenians. Djevded Bey was the former governor of Van, where the most serious Armenian rising took place in 1915. He was one of the chief people accused by the British and their Armenian allies of the massacres.

So this is very curious and it indicates that Pope Benedict XV, who was well informed and in contact with the Ottoman authorities, did not think of such events in the way Pope Francis does. After all, no Pope ever called for the release of the Nazis from Nuremberg, despite any thoughts of forgiveness the Vatican may have had.

The Rev. Henry Rope, Benedict’s biographer, states that the Pope:

“… had directly pleaded with the Sultan and other princes able and willing to help. In many places he had obtained an end to the killings… Beside general massacre vast deportations, pillages and sacrileges, flight and famine had been the lot of this sorely tried people.” (Benedict XV, The Pope of Peace, p.211)

This very much implies that Pope Benedict did not see the Ottomans as intent on massacring the Armenians, but rather as a potential (and successful, in places) block on a war of extermination between different groups of citizens within a collapsing state structure. This is a rather more complex position than that of reducing the events of 1915 in Anatolia completely to the semantics of the appropriateness of a single word to describe historical events.

Finally, it should be noted that Pope Francis also said the following on April 12th, though the press were not interested:

“May God grant that the people of Armenia and Turkey take up again the path of reconciliation, and may peace also spring forth in Nagorno Karabakh. Despite conflicts and tensions, Armenians and Turks have lived long periods of peaceful coexistence in the past and, even in the midst of violence, they have experienced times of solidarity and mutual help. Only in this way will new generations open themselves to a better future and will the sacrifice of so many become seeds of justice and peace.”

Those sentiments were much more in line with those of his illustrious predecessor, the Pope of Peace, Benedict XV, who tried valiantly to end Britain’s Great War, saving all the people of Anatolia, Moslem and Christian.

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