Pope mourns Armenian genocide, but media downplay religious angle

He did it: Pope Francis used the "G" word -- genocide -- in a centennial Mass yesterday mourning the Turkish killings of nearly 1.5 million Armenians toward the end of World War I.

If only the news reports were as free with two other words: Christianity and religion.

Speculation had grown in advance stories like this one from the Los Angeles Times, after Pope Francis announced he would say a Mass for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian deaths. Turkey, a pro-western Muslim country, has long denied charges that it committed genocide.

And when Francis used the word in the Mass yesterday, it bore immediate consequences, news media reported -- as in a Reuters story via Al Jazeera.

"Turkey has recalled its ambassador to the Vatican for consultations in an escalating diplomatic row over Pope Francis' use of the word "genocide" to describe the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman forces during World War I," the lede says. A longer, earlier version of the story says Turkey also called the Vatican ambassador to Turkey for a scolding.

But most mainstream media seem timid in admitting the religious facet of a Muslim empire killing a Christian minority. And when they do get around to that aspect, most bury it in the article.

One of the best backgrounders on the matter is a video by an outfit called Newsy. The brisk, 90-second video touches on the killings, Francis' record on statements about the genocide, and the centuries-old relationship of the Armenian and Roman Catholic churches.

Many articles point out that Francis made the Armenian killings the first of three major genocides of the 20th century. The other two, he said, were the Nazi Holocaust and Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union. Turkey objected to the "genocide" label, even though it was used by Pope John Paul II in 2001. The former Ottoman Empire has agreed that thousands of Armenians died in the war, but said that so did thousands of Muslims. Turkey also denies that the deaths were as high as 1.5 million.

But the Reuters articles add the religion angle only through a statement by President Serzh Sarksyan of Armenia:

"We are deeply grateful to His Holiness Pope Francis for the idea of this unprecedented liturgy ... which symbolizes our solidarity with the people of the Christian world," Sarksyan said in a speech at a Vatican dinner on Saturday evening.
The pope said genocide continues today against Christians "who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death - decapitated, crucified, burned alive - or forced to leave their homeland."

CNN doesn't do much better, calling the genocide "mass killings of Armenians a century ago under the Ottoman Empire." Never mind what religion just about all Armenians belong to, or what faith the Ottomans promoted.

True to secular media form, the CNN story brings up religion near the end -- starting with Turkey's denial of a genocide. Turkey simply says a lot of Muslims and Christians died in "intercommunal violence," CNN says.

At least the network allows Francis to list the kinds of believers: "Pope Francis said Sunday that 'Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks' were also killed in the bloodshed a century ago."

The Los Angeles Times produced more than 3,000 words on the commemoration in four days. Its April 9 advance quoted politicians and Armenian leaders. And two follow-up stories yesterday, here and here, major on reactions of Armenians in Southern California, although the latter story has more on what happened in Rome.

Two of those three Times stories ignore the religious nature of an imperial Muslim kingdom attacking a Christian minority. And in the third article, that fact is added almost as an afterthought toward the end:

Francis now risks losing Turkey’s support as he seeks to defend Christian communities being persecuted by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Many Christians have sought refuge in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, as they have fled the Islamist militants.
Describing those communities Sunday, Francis underscored the “muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death — decapitated, crucified, burned alive — or forced to leave their homeland.”

The article also quotes Karekin II, the Armenian patriarch: "Our centuries-old Christian legacy heritage was ruined, obliterated and seized."

USA Today places the pope's remarks about religion higher: "A century has passed since that horrific massacre which was a true martyrdom of your people, in which many innocent people died as confessors and martyrs for the name of Christ."

The newspaper also has Francis honoring Armenia as "the first Christian nation." And it says Francis cited a declaration signed in 2001 by John Paul II and Karekin II, the Armenian patriarch.

Then the article comes back with the Turkish reaction:

Turkey's embassy to the Vatican canceled a planned news conference for Sunday, presumably after learning that the pope would utter the word "genocide" over its objections. Instead, the Foreign Ministry in Ankara issued a terse statement conveying its "great disappointment and sadness." It said the pope's words signaled a loss in trust, contradicted the pope's message of peace and was discriminatory because Francis only mentioned the pain of Christians, not Muslims or other religious groups.

More forthright is Crux, a Catholic newsmagazine:

The pontiff linked that calamity to contemporary anti-Christian persecution, since the vast majority of the Armenian victims a century ago were Christians. He said that today, too, the world is indifferent over “a sort of genocide” as Christians and other minorities are decapitated, crucified, burned alive, or forced to leave their homeland.
“Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it!” the pontiff said.

Like CNN, Crux cites the pope's list of the persecuted -- Christians: Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, etc. -- adding that bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly, and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered. Also impressive is a quote by Brazilian Monsignor Vartan W. Boghossian, eparch of Armenian churches in Latin America, who knew Francis as the archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The eparch also said that remembering this genocide is important because it wasn’t just the first of the 20th century, but also the first attempt to annihilate a Christian nation.
“It began because of political needs,” Boghossian said, “but as we see today in the Middle East, during the Armenian genocide some were given the chance of converting [to Islam] to escape death.”

As the stories report, the matter has undeniable socio-political layers. President Obama reportedly called the Armenian deaths a genocide in 2008, but hasn't done so since becoming president. But the State Department is worried about alienating Turkey, a strong ally in the region and a nation often held up as an example of a moderate Muslim land.

All that said, the religious aspect of the genocide of Armenians is hard to miss, except by Turkey and by aggressively secular western media. To ignore it may be even worse than letting a wound bleed; it inflicts fresh wounds by suggesting that killing for religion either didn't happen or doesn't matter.

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