YEREVAN, Armenia — The world should never forget or minimize the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians, Pope Francis declared Saturday even as he urged Armenians to infuse their collective memory with love so they can find peace and reconcile with Turkey.
Turkey, though, didn’t budge. In its first reaction to Francis’ recognition of the 1915 genocide, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli called the comments “greatly unfortunate” and said they bore the hallmarks of the “mentality of the Crusades.”
Francis began his second day in Armenia by paying his respects at the country’s imposing genocide memorial and greeting descendants of survivors of the 1915 massacres, who have been emboldened by his comments upon arrival that the slaughter of Armenians a century ago was a planned “genocide” meant to annihilate an entire people.
Francis presented a wreath at the memorial and stood, head bowed, in silent prayer before an eternal flame as priests blessed him with incense and a choir sang haunting hymns.
“Here I pray with sorrow in my heart, so that a tragedy like this never again occurs, so that humanity will never forget and will know how to defeat evil with good,” Francis wrote in the memorial’s guest book. “May God protect the memory of the Armenian people. Memory should never be watered-down or forgotten. Memory is the source of peace and the future.”
Francis also greeted descendants of the 400 or so Armenian orphans taken in by Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI at the papal summer residence south of Rome in the 1920s. Also approaching Francis was Sosi Habeschyan, 68, and her sister; their mother was a genocide orphan adopted and raised by Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen, who worked in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and wrote about the massacre.
“A blessing has come down on the land of Mt. Ararat,” said Andzhela Adzhemyan, a 35-year old refugee from Syria who was a guest at the memorial. “He has given us the strength and confidence to keep our Christian faith no matter what.”
Francis returned to the theme of memory during a Mass in Gyumri, where several thousand people gathered in a square for his only public Catholic Mass of his three-day visit to Armenia. Nestled in the rolling green hills and wildflower fields of northwestern Armenia, Gyumri has long been a cradle of Christianity, and Francis came to pay homage to its faith even in times of trial.
“Peoples, like individuals, have a memory,” he told the crowd from the altar. “Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious.”
Francis again raised the importance of memory at an evening prayer in Yerevan’s Republic Square, which drew the largest crowds of his visit, some 50,000 according to Vatican estimates. With the patriarch of the Apostolic Church, Karekin II, by his side and President Serzh Sargsyan in the front row, Francis said even the greatest pain “can become a seed of peace for the future.”
“Memory, infused with love, becomes capable of setting out on new and unexpected paths, where designs of hatred become projects of reconciliation, where hope arises for a better future for everyone,” he said.
He specifically called for Armenia and Turkey to take up the “path of reconciliation” and said: “May peace also spring forth in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
The Vatican has long held up the landlocked nation of 3 million mostly Orthodox Christians as a bastion of faith and martyrdom in a largely Muslim region and the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301.
“We were saved by the Christian faith, which in the years of the genocide helped our grandfathers and great-grandfathers,” 38-year-old Vardui Simonyan, a granddaughter of genocide survivors, said after the pope’s visit to the genocide memorial. “The fact that one of the main people in Christendom is with us is inspiring.”
Upon his arrival Friday in the capital, Yerevan, Francis added the politically charged word “genocide” to his prepared text, listing the 1915 Armenian genocide alongside the Holocaust and Stalinism as the three great mass slaughters of the 20th century.
Turkey rejects the term, saying the 1.5 million deaths cited by historians is an inflated figure and that people died on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed amid World War I. When Francis first used it last year, Turkey withdrew its ambassador for 10 months and accused Francis of spreading lies.
On Saturday, the deputy prime minister, Canikli, said the term “does not comply with the truth.”
“Everyone knows that. We all know it, the whole world knows it, and so do the Armenians,” he added.
In a largely Orthodox land where Catholics are a minority, Armenians have seemed genuinely honored to welcome a pope who has long championed the Armenian cause from his time as an archbishop in Argentina and now as leader of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church.
“We have the memory of the genocide in our genes,” said 45-year-old Alexander Rubenyan from Yerevan. “It used to be a gene of sadness, but with every visit of people like the pope the Armenian gene is becoming more alive and full of optimism.”