Pope Francis provoked Turkish anger on Sunday when he used the word "genocide" to refer to the mass killings of Armenians a century ago under the Ottoman Empire.
But it’s likely it was a calculated move aimed at drawing maximum attention to today’s persecuted Christians and ethnic minorities.
At the end of a Mass in St. Peter’s basilica on Sunday to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian massacres, the pope said that in the past century, “our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies.”
"The first, which is widely considered 'the first genocide of the 20th century,' struck your own Armenian people," he said, referencing a 2001 declaration by Pope St. John Paul II and the head of the Armenian church. Despite quoting from the declaration, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Holy See for “consultations” — although Turkish sources did not say diplomatic ties had been severed.
But what was not widely reported was the context in which Francis made the remarks — one which shows his target audience was probably not so much Turkey as the perpetrators of genocide and mass murder today, such as Islamist militants, and the international community that has been silent and reticent to act.
“On a number of occasions I have spoken of our time as a time of war, a third world war which is being fought piecemeal, one in which we daily witness savage crimes, brutal massacres and senseless destruction,” the pope began his controversial message on Sunday.
“Sadly today, too, we hear the muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death — decapitated, crucified, burned alive — or forced to leave their homeland.”
He added: “Today, too, we are experiencing a sort of genocide created by general and collective indifference, by the complicit silence of Cain, who cries out: “What does it matter to me? Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Throughout Easter, the pope made numerous appeals
on behalf of persecuted Christians. He began Holy Week by drawing attention to persecuted Christians whom he called a “cloud of witnesses” to Christ. On Good Friday, while praying the Stations of the Cross at Rome’s Colosseum, he prayed to Jesus of “our brothers and sisters who are persecuted, beheaded and crucified for their faith in you, right before our eyes and often with our complicit silence.”
He closed by saying on Easter Monday that persecuted Christians are “the martyrs of our own time, and there are many” and expressing his hope that the international community “does not stand by mute and motionless in the face of this unacceptable crime, which is a worrying departure from the basic human rights.”
“I sincerely hope that the international community does not turn its face away,” he said.
Possibly knowing the strong reaction his reference to genocide would provoke from the Turkish government, and the subsequent publicity it would attract, the pope thought it was a risk worth taking to draw attention to modern-day persecution.
And perhaps it’s no coincidence that at his morning homily on Monday, he stressed the importance of the church speaking boldly and without fear.
Recalling the examples of the apostles Peter and John, he said they were men who, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaimed the gospel with “courage, boldness” and weren’t “afraid to say things.”
During his pontificate, Francis has urged Catholics to do likewise, using the ancient Greek word "parrhesia", meaning to speak candidly, or with boldness.
Some of the pope’s Catholic critics would like him to apply more of this teaching to himself when it comes to preaching doctrine. They feel he is too reticent to preach Jesus’ hard teachings because he wants to emphasize God’s mercy and make the faith appear more attractive — a tactic significant numbers of the faithful think is erroneous.
But when it comes to certain issues, such as speaking up on behalf of persecuted Christians, there’s a reason why some like to call him "Pope Frank."
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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