ROME — One week after Easter Sunday, Pope Francis is scheduled to celebrate a service in the Armenian Catholic rite to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a mass killing of Armenians by Turks in the early 20th century that the pontiff defined two years ago as the “first genocide of the modern era.”
In a time of mounting anti-Christian violence in various corners of the Middle East, the pope’s act is likely to take on more than merely historical interest.
The April 12 papal liturgy is part of a broader campaign by Armenians to keep the memory of their suffering alive, which will feature the ringing of bells in Armenian churches around the world on April 23 at 19:15 (7:15 p.m.), the hour chosen to symbolically recall the year 1915. Bells will sound everywhere but Turkey, where the small number of churches still in operation will remain silent.
Francis has long been aware of the calamity that befell Turkey’s Armenian minority, having led an ecumenical service of remembrance in Buenos Aires in 2006.
“Today we come to pray for this people to whom human rights still don’t apply,” then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said on that occasion. He called for “the end of the empire’s silence,” referring to the Ottomans and their successors in today’s Turkey, saying that acknowledging what had happened would “bring peace to the Armenian people.”
Scholars believe that 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of efforts to drive Armenians and other minorities from their homelands in present-day Turkey after World War I. It’s often acknowledged as the first genocide of the 20th century, and a forerunner to later atrocities such as those committed by Nazi Germany and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.