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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News
Pope Francis is greeted by the head of Armenia's Orthodox Church Karekin II, during an Armenian-Rite Mass on the occasion of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, on Sunday.Gregorio Borgia / AP

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis sparked a diplomatic incident with Turkey on Sunday by calling the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks "the first genocide of the 20th century."

Francis, who has close ties to the Armenian community from his days in Argentina, defended his pronouncement by saying it was his duty to honor the memory of the innocent men, women and children who were "senselessly" murdered by Ottoman Turks 100 years ago this month.

"Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it," he said at the start of a Mass in the Armenian Catholic rite in St. Peter's Basilica honoring the centenary.

In a subsequent message directed to all Armenians, Francis called on all heads of state and international organizations to recognize the truth of what transpired and oppose such crimes "without ceding to ambiguity or compromise."

Turkey, which has long denied a genocide took place, immediately summoned the Vatican ambassador to express its displeasure, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Ankara said on customary condition of anonymity.

Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, has insisted that the toll has been inflated, and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest, not genocide. It has fiercely lobbied to prevent countries, including the Holy See, from officially recognizing the Armenian massacre as genocide.

— The Associated Press