Members of Southern California’s Armenian American community on Sunday lauded Pope Francis, calling him “courageous” for his recognition of the mass killings of Armenians a century ago under the Ottoman Empire as genocide.
“As far as the Armenian American Community is concerned, the pope has taken a courageous stand despite the threats from the republic of Turkey,” said Glendale Mayor Zareh Sinanyan, whose city has been a haven for Armenians for generations.
Sinanyan said Turkey’s denial of the genocide and the United States’ refusal to acknowledge it has not allowed Armenians to move on from the killings.
“It’s like a bleeding wound that just won’t go away,” he said. “There’s no closure, there’s no healing.”
He said the pope’s statements on Sunday were powerful.
“When people with high public profiles like the pope are not only using the word “genocide” but actually holding the Mass in the Vatican dedicated to the victims ... that resonates in the Armenian American community,” he said.
Speaking before a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica to mark the centenary of the killings, Francis defined the slaughter of as many as 1.5 million Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century,” quoting a statement made by Pope John Paul II in 2001.
“The remaining two were perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism,” he said. "And more recently there have been other mass killings, like those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia.”
In response, Turkey summoned the Vatican’s ambassador to the country to complain about Francis’ remarks. It also recalled its ambassador to the Vatican over the incident, according to the Associated Press.
Sinanyan said he hopes the pope’s statements will encourage the U.S. to “stop playing politics” and acknowledge the genocide. He said he hopes that President Obama will do so as well. “I’m really hoping that he will really take a courageous step and do what’s right,” he said.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who is the lead sponsor of the proposed Armenian Genocide Truth and Justice Resolution in Congress, said in a statement he hopes that “the pope's words will inspire our President and Congress to demonstrate a like commitment to speaking the truth about the Armenian Genocide and to renounce Turkey's campaign of concealment and denial.
"America must speak plainly about the facts of what happened one hundred years ago, when in the throes of defeat, the Ottoman Empire murdered one and a half million Armenian men, women and children. With the centennial of the genocide fast approaching, and with a few survivors still among us, the time for inexcusable silence has come to an end."
Turkey claims that just half a million Armenians died in fighting when they rose up against their Ottoman rulers after World War I, and denies that their deaths constitute an act of genocide.
That position conflicts with the views of most historians of the period, who agree that Armenians were victims of genocide. A number of countries have issued statements over the years condemning Turkey’s actions as genocide. Although Obama, before his election, referred several times to the deaths as genocide, he has not done so as president, maintaining his predecessors’ reluctance to alienate Turkey, a highly valued ally in the Middle East.
In a statement, Montebello Mayor Jack Hadjinian, who became the city’s first Armenian American mayor in last November’s election and is the grandchild of a genocide survivor, said, “I am comforted by the words of Pope Francis and his courage to stand on the side of truth and human rights. His words go beyond the political and offer healing and possibility for the Armenians who had to suffer decades of denial and transgenerational trauma from the Turkish Government.
“The fact that Turkey recalled its envoy from Rome proves that they are not working hard enough to push their propaganda and take responsibility for crimes against humanity. With Turkey’s continued denial, the cycle of genocide continues and allows for these heinous crimes to happen again in the world."
Before Sunday Mass at St. Gregory Armenian Catholic Church in Glendale, Father Antoine Noradounghian said he had "joy in his heart" after hearing the pope's message.
"What it means is we have to always remember -- even after another 100 years," he said.
Peter Haig, who is the Armenian diocese’s representative to the United Armenian Council of Los Angeles, told worshipers after the service "that this is a great thing that the pope did for us Armenians. ... He had the courage in spite of all the political pressure. He said what is on his mind for the sake of all humanity.
"For young Armenians, this should give them hope," Haig said. "For everyone, there's comfort that the world has not forgotten about us. For years, big, civilized countries have not accepted this truth, but many are still fighting to bring justice to the table."
Haig’s wife, Seta, who is a mental health therapist, said the denial of the genocide is "a wound that continues to fester. That's why this message is so healing. It's very, very exciting that the pope has the strength to say it. He is fearless. He has guts."
Naris Khalatian, an attorney from Glendale, clasped her hands together as if in prayer, her voice deep with emotion. Pope Francis "acknowledged the fact that this was evil. Thank you," she said fervently, standing in the shade of the church's three pomegranate trees, the fruit of Armenia representing fertility.
"I woke up at 6 a.m. today and went straight for my phone. I googled Pope Francis and Armenia and genocide. I kept wondering if he was going to use the 'g' word," Khalatian said, sharing family stories about how her grandfather and his brothers were forced to pretend to be Muslims to survive the genocide.
"Basically, what you see now with [the terrorist group Islamic State] is what happened all those years ago," she said.
"Only then, she said, we didn't have Facebook to show everyone" what the Turks "were doing. The whole Ottoman empire decided to get rid of one race. I personally can't forgive them until they recognize what they did."