VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the slaughter of Armenians by calling the massacre by Ottoman Turks "the first genocide of the 20th century" and urging the international community to recognize it as such. Turkey immediately responded by recalling its ambassador and accusing Francis of spreading hatred and "unfounded claims."
Francis issued the pronouncement during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica commemorating the centenary that was attended by Armenian church leaders and President Serge Sarkisian, who praised the pope for calling a spade a spade and "delivering a powerful message to the international community."
"The words of the leader of a church with 1 billion followers cannot but have a strong impact," he told The Associated Press.
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, denies a genocide took place. It has insisted that the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.
Francis defended his words by saying it was his duty to honor the memory of the innocent men, women and children who were "senselessly" murdered by Ottoman Turks.
"Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it," he said.
He said similar massacres are under way today against Christians who because of their faith are "publicly and ruthlessly put to death — decapitated, crucified, burned alive — or forced to leave their homeland," a reference to the Islamic State group's assault against Christians in Iraq and Syria.
Francis called on the world community, heads of state and international organizations to recognize the truth of what transpired to prevent such "horrors" from repeating themselves, and to oppose all such crimes "without ceding to ambiguity or compromise."
Turkey has fiercely lobbied to prevent countries, including the Holy See, from officially recognizing the Armenian massacre as genocide and reacted strongly to Francis' declaration.
"The pope's statement, which is far from historic and legal truths, is unacceptable," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted. "Religious positions are not places where unfounded claims are made and hatred is stirred."
The Foreign Ministry summoned the Vatican's envoy in Ankara, and then announced it was recalling its own ambassador to the Vatican for consultations.
In a statement, the ministry said the Turkish people would not recognize the pope's statement "which is controversial in every aspect, which is based on prejudice, which distorts history and reduces the pains suffered in Anatolia under the conditions of the First World War to members of just one religion."
It accused Francis of deviating from his message of peace and reconciliation during his November visit to Turkey.
Several European countries recognize the massacres as genocide, though Italy and the United States, for example, have avoided using the term officially given the importance they place on Turkey as an ally.
The Holy See, too, places great importance in its relationship with the moderate Muslim nation, especially as it demands that Muslim leaders condemn the Islamic State group slaughter of Christians.
But Francis' willingness to rile Ankara with his words showed once again that he has few qualms about taking diplomatic risks for issues close to his heart. And the massacre of Armenians is indeed close to the Vatican's heart given that Armenia is held up as the first Christian nation, dating from 301.
That said, Francis is not the first pope to call the massacre a genocide. St. John Paul II wrote in a 2001 joint declaration with the Armenian church leader, Karenkin II, that the deaths were considered "the first genocide of the 20th century."
But the context of Francis' pronunciation was different and significant: in St. Peter's during an Armenian rite service with the Armenian church and state leadership in attendance on the 100th anniversary of the slaughter. And his call for international acknowledgement of what happened went beyond what John Paul had written.
Francis' words had a deeply moving effect among Armenians in the basilica, many of whom wept. At the end of the service, the Armenian Apostolic Church's Aram I thanked Francis for his clear condemnation and recalled that "genocide" is a crime against humanity that requires reparation.
The Armenian president, Sarkisian, praised Francis for "calling things by their names."
In the interview, he acknowledged the reparation issue, but said "for our people, the primary issue is universal recognition of the Armenian genocide, including recognition by Turkey."
He dismissed Turkish calls for joint research into what transpired, saying researchers and commissions have already come to the conclusion and there is "no doubt at all that what happened was a genocide."
The lead sponsor of a new U.S. congressional resolution recognizing the genocide, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), said he hoped the pope's words would "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."
The definition of genocide has long been contentious. The United Nations in 1948 defined genocide as killing and other acts intended to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, but many dispute which mass killings should be called genocide and whether the terms of the U.N. convention on genocide can be applied retroactively.
Reaction to the pope's declaration on the streets in Istanbul was mixed.
"I'm glad he said it," said Aysun Vahic Olger. "When you look at history, there's proof of it."
However, Mucahit Yucedal, 25, said he felt genocide is a "serious allegation."
"I don't support the word genocide being used by a great religious figure who has many followers," he said.