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The Pope Rebukes Turkey—and Should Challenge America and Israel

The pontiff recognizes the Armenian genocide of a century ago, but can he do more about today's wars and injustices?
Pope Francis lecturing

Last week Pope Francis described the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as “genocide,” joining France and 20 other countries in adopting that designation. The massacres and forced relocations of Armenian civilians began 100 years ago and concluded with the end of the First World War in 1918. Even Turkey’s German military advisers were appalled by what they were witnessing. Turkish historians have tended to argue that the deaths were consequences of the war itself, in which Imperial Russian armies overran predominantly Armenian regions in Eastern Anatolia, leading to a forced evacuation of a population that had allegedly greeted the invaders and was considered unreliable. Food and other resources were scarce or nonexistent along the largely arid countryside that the evacuees passed through.

Nevertheless, though wartime conditions might in part explain the scale of the deaths of civilians, there is more than enough documentary evidence to make a convincing case that Armenians far removed from the fighting were also systematically slaughtered as policy initiated by senior government officials. Not every official or Turkish soldier was part of the process, but many certainly were.

The usual Turcophobes have praised the papal pronouncement, while Ankara has recalled its ambassador from the Holy See and has expressed its anger. The Turks’ response is in part fueled by their belief that they were victims in the First World War as much as anyone, having been invaded and occupied by foreign armies during the fighting and in its aftermath. Still, while the concern of Ankara lest it be associated with a crime against humanity carried out on its soil is understandable, the intention either to kill or drive out all or most Armenians from Ottoman lands qualifies as a genocide if anything does, making it, as Pope Francis noted, the first such outrage in the 20th century. It was followed by Stalin’s starvation of the Ukrainians, the Wannsee program by the Nazis to kill or expel all European Jews, Pol Pot’s mass slaughters in Cambodia, and the horrors of Rwanda at the century’s end.

But one nevertheless has to wonder at the consequences of an ex post facto establishment of accountability for a crime that began 100 years ago in a now nonexistent political entity with victims and perpetrators who are no longer alive. When I lived in Istanbul in the 1980s I knew many Armenians well enough to be invited into their homes and attend their church services. I also knew Roman Catholics with whom I went to Mass, and had friends at the Greek Patriarchate, the Phanar. Christians were allowed to worship freely, but there was always a sense that they were being permitted to do so on sufferance and that it was a privilege rather than a right in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. I visited Istanbul again this summer, and the increase in visible Islamic religiosity was startling, so I assume that Christians are even more on edge.

Given that Christians in Turkey are still allowed to worship and associate more or less freely, Pope Francis’s declaration can only make their status somewhat more delicate, as those who see Turkey as a Muslim rather than a secular nation, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will be able to play the nationalist card to make that vision a reality. The pace of the conversion of surviving historic churches into mosques will no doubt accelerate. In short, Pope Francis makes their situation more difficult in exchange for what I believe to be no actual net gain.

And then there is the essential hypocrisy of papal pronouncements. All too often the Church fails to live up to its own values. For me that occurred in dramatic fashion when Pope John Paul II conferred the appearance of Christian legitimacy on President George W. Bush by granting him four papal audiences. To his credit, the pope raised the issue of the deteriorating status of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and called for peace in the region, but he did not do or say anything that might have a serious impact. If Turkey must be held accountable for massacres that took place in wartime 100 years ago, one has to wonder why the man who started a war unnecessarily, which at that point had killed scores of thousands of civilians and enabled the destruction of the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East, should be rewarded with multiple papal audiences.

I for one would have liked to have seen the pope refuse to meet with Bush or at least politely but publicly confront the president during the audience over what he had unleashed. Such a gesture could have had a real impact in the United States and just might have put the lie to the claims of success of the Iraq venture, which one still tends to hear on occasion, recently from Bush himself declaring that it brought “democracy.”

I understand that the sensitivities of the U.S. Catholic Church are important to the Holy See, and no pope would want to gratuitously contradict an American president, but it seems to me that the Church has a responsibility to bear witness as an antidote to ongoing evil backed by an assertion of Christian values. A public display of disapproval delivered to 78 million American Catholics might have served to restrain Bush-Cheney. And even if it did not, it would have been the right thing to do.

Which brings us to here and now. Concerning Pope Francis and his condemnation of Armenian genocide, I have to ask, “What have you done for me today?” The reticence of Christian organizations to get behind the Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel in an attempt to help deliver self-determination and fundamental human rights to the Palestinians has mystified me. I understand that the Catholic Church does not want to make more confrontational its interaction with the often difficult Israeli overlords of ecclesiastical properties in Jerusalem, and the Church has its own priorities in support of Christian-Jewish dialogue that it would not want to damage. There is also lurking the issue of historic anti-Semitism within the Church, but BDS is a perfect vehicle for helping to redress a current wrong. It is nonviolent, nonconfrontational, and conforms with international law. Precisely what is boycotted, divested, or sanctioned can be tailored to specific issues like settlement building. BDS seeks to establish fundamental liberties for Palestinians, including the freedom to run their own affairs either as a separate state or as part of a truly democratic Israel that grants equal rights to all.

For Catholics there is also a personal stake in what goes on in Israel, namely that the Church has an ancient physical presence in Israel and Palestine that is diminishing and under siege. The abuse of Christian clergy and laity in Israel has been widely reported, and there are 50 laws that discriminate in various ways against non-Jews. The Israeli bureaucracy de facto aids the process by refusing basic services for non-Jews, appropriating or infringing on Christian and Muslim religious sites, and systematically denying things like building permits even if there is no law that is directly applicable.

Demands to turn Israel into an increasingly apartheid-like Jewish State will have additional real-life consequences, not unlike Erdogan’s promoting Islam as the state religion in Turkey. Some Israeli politicians are on record calling for the expulsion of all Arabs or creating incentives for them to leave voluntarily. Christians, many of whom are in communion with Rome, confronted by a government hostile to their interests have already done and will continue to do the latter, emigrating to find a better life within their diaspora community overseas. The number of Catholics in Israel declined by half between 1980 and 2008. The death of the Christian community in the very land where the religion was founded ought to be of concern to the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

To be sure there will be strong resistance to any papal pronouncement in support of any element of BDS. Israelis will unleash their considerable propaganda resources to denigrate the pope, including labeling him as an anti-Semite. Indeed, other Christian groups that have supported BDS, often in a lukewarm fashion, have been so denounced, including the Presbyterians, who recently divested from three companies well known for their involvement in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Media coverage of Pope Francis’s comments on the Armenians cited his outspokenness and “sympathy for all victims.” Apart from his reference to the “state of Palestine” on a visit to the Holy Land in May, any recognition of Palestinian suffering has been rather thin gruel. One has to ask, when the Roman Catholic Church’s sympathy will be extended in tangible form to the Palestinians?

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.