Pope Defends Use of Word 'Genocide' to Describe Turkish Slaughter of Armenians

Image: Pope Francis speaks to journalists on his flight back to Rome following a visit at Armenia
Pope Francis speaks to journalists on his flight back to Rome following a visit at Armenia on June 26, 2016.POOL / Reuters

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By Claudio Lavanga

On the flight back to Rome from his three-day visit to Armenia, Pope Francis defended his decision to call the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the beginning of the 20th century a "genocide" — and warned about divisions in Europe.

"Back in Argentina the slaughter of the Armenians was only known as genocide, I never knew another word to describe it.” the pope told journalists travelling on the plane with him. "After I was elected Pope, I started hearing other expressions like 'great evil,' or 'terrible tragedy.' I heard that’s an offensive way to describe it. It should be called 'genocide.' But I always used this word in an objective, not an offensive way."

Pope Francis speaks to journalists on his flight back to Rome following a visit at Armenia on June 26, 2016.POOL / Reuters

Asked about his decision to use the word genocide even though wasn’t included in the prepared speech distributed to journalist before his meeting with Armenia’s president on Friday, he said: “I decided to use the word genocide because I already used it last year, during the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the slaughter. It would have been strange not to do the same."

Related: Pope Compares Armenian 'Genocide' to Current Plight of Christians in Middle East

The pontiff also warned about the historical repercussions of remaining silent on the Armenian genocide. "I heard, I don’t know if it’s true, that Hitler used to say: 'Who remembers the Armenians these days? Let’s do the same with the Jews.'"

During the flight, the Francis also spoke about the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

"There is an ongoing war in Europe. There’s an air of division, not only across Europe, but within countries as well, like in Catalonia, or Scotland," he said. "I don’t know why the British decided to leave the European Union, but to me unity is better than conflict, brotherhood is better than distance, and bridges are better than walls.”

There was time for the Pope to react also to the controversy caused by Georg Ganswein, the personal secretary of Pope Benedict who, in a speech at the Gregorian University in Rome at the end of May, seemed to imply that two popes are running the Church at the same time.

Related: Pope Francis Says 'Genocide' on Armenia Trip, Likely Angering Turks

“Benedict is the pope emeritus, not a second pope," said Francis. "He said clearly that he would resign and would retire to help the Church with prayers. He now lives in a monastery and prays. He pledged obedience to the new pope, and he did. To me, he is like a wise grandpa living in the same house.

He then hinted that Benedict’s decision to retire could be the start of a trend.

"I thanked publicly Pope Benedict for opening the door to a pope emeritus," said Pope Francis. "With the increase in the lifespan, how can one manage the Church at a certain age, with ailments. I think this is a good thing for the Church. But there is only one Pope. The other one, or who knows, there could be two or three in the future, are pope emeritus."

Related: Turkey Criticizes Pope's Use of 'Genocide' to Describe Killings of Armenians

The pope also answered a question on whether the Church should "apologize" to the gay community saying:

"I believe that the Church not only should apologize to this person who is gay whom it has offended, but has to apologize to the poor, to exploited women, to children exploited for labor — it has to ask forgiveness for having blessed many weapons. The Church has to ask forgiveness for not having behaved in many ways."

The pope will now prepare for his upcoming trip to Poland at the end of July for World Youth Day, where he will also visit the Aushwitz concentration camp.

"I would like to go there without any prepared speeches, without many people around, and pray in silence," the Pope concluded. "I will enter, and pray for God to grace me with tears."