Turkey and Pope Francis: A Dangerous Game of Chicken


On Sunday, during a mass commemorating the 1.5 million Armenians who perished in the First World War (the 1o0th anniversary is on April 24th), Pope Francis referred to their deaths as a “genocide,” and caused a diplomatic uproar.

“In the past century our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies,” the Pope told the crowd which included Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. “The first, which is widely considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century,’ struck your own Armenian people.”

Pope Francis is not the first Catholic leader to express such sentiments. In his address, he quoted from statements made by Pope John Paul II 2001.

However, Turkey’s response was swift and predictable. Over the decades, use of the term genocide to describe what took place in central Anatolia during the First World War has only engendered abrasive rebuke by Turkish politicians and the Turkish public, so the subsequent decision by Ankara to recall its ambassador to the Vatican was typical.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry called Pope Francis’ comments “one-sided” and “distorting historical facts.”

Here are statements by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu:

But the situation deteriorated even further when Turkey’s EU Minister, Volkan Bozkır, implied that the pontiff’s employment of the “G-word” may have been due to his Argentinian heritage. The same Argentina, Bozkır stated, that “welcomed Nazis, who were the lead performers of the Jewish Holocaust.” The same Argentina, the official continued, with a “dominant” Armenian diaspora community.

Finally, because matters couldn’t get much worse, the head of Turkey’s top religious body insinuated that the Vatican was under the sway of outside influences (think Gülen Movement in particular), a classic “conspiracy theory” maneuver that plays on xenophobic fears.

“It is upsetting that political lobbies and PR firms around the world have extended [their activities] to religious institutions’ rites and prayers. If societies start to interrogate each other over past sorrows, the Vatican will suffer more than anyone else,” he said.

However, with the PR campaign over the “G-word” at a fever pitch and the 100th anniversary only ten days away, Pope Francis’ statements could not have come as a shock to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Even Kim Kardashian, not known for her foreign policy prowess, coincidentally decided to take her first trip to Armenian just two weeks before the Armenian Genocide centenary, and then whizzed off to baptize her daughter in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter on Monday (events which drew massive media awareness to the centenary effort).

Even Turkey’s main opposition party, sensing an opportunity to critique Erdoğan and the ruling AKP, claimed Tuesday that the religious self-identification of the country’s leadership enabled Pope Francis to spin the genocide debate into a religious issue.

No, this was a dangerous game of chicken that Erdoğan likely knew was coming. And for those who observe the Turkish president’s tactics, his response was familiar and well-rehearsed.

Erdoğan, who it should be mentioned over the last two years has made the-most-progressive-statements-regarding-the-events-of-1915-without-using-the-G-word by any politician in his country’s history, wanted to avoid a war of words with the head of the Catholic Church, the same man who visited Turkey in late November 2014 and was the first foreign guest in the new presidential palace. Pope Francis is widely regarded as a humble man with staunch, if unorthodox beliefs, but the last thing that Erdoğan needed for Turkey’s already sullied global image is a public dispute with a man who 1.2 billion human beings regard as the vicar of Christ, and who is respected by the international community. That is not simply bad for business – it could have unpredictable consequences. Yet at the same time he couldn’t afford to appear weak with only eight precious weeks remaining till the June parliamentary elections.

So first he allowed secondary Turkish actors to take wild jabs at the pontiff in order to assure the Turkish public that their honor was being valiantly defended. Then Erdoğan stepped in, expressing “regret” over the pope’s choice of language, which according to the Turkish president displayed “the appearance of a mentality different to that of a religious functionary.” As in years past, Erdoğan proposed that a joint historical committee comprised of Turkish and Armenian experts open up both nations’ archives and find out what really happened. Because he has used these lines in years past, I have no doubt he prepared to deliver these statements in the coming days regardless of papal interference.

By employing these countermeasures, Erdoğan both dismissed Pope Francis’ utterance to the “G-word” and accepted that the pontifex’s statements could not be reversed.

Has the pope’s statements created a window of opportunity for others to join the “G-word” campaign? Early signs indicate that the answer is no. When prompted to respond to the pontiff’s comments, Germany fell back on the call for historians to determine an appropriate label for what took place during in the First World War. Perhaps Pope Francis inadvertently absolved other states from tackling this touchy subject for a while longer.

But now it is up to both sides to walk away before further damage is done.

For more on the “G-word,” check out this piece by Thomas de Waal.

For more on Israel’s position on the Armenian genocide, check out my earlier piece here.

Posted on by Gabriel in Turkey