ARMENIA, Jun 27 – Pope Francis on Sunday released peace doves on the Armenia-Turkey border in a gesture of reconciliation as Ankara slammed the pontiff for denouncing the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman forces as “genocide”.
Standing on a terrace of the Khor Virap monastery, Francis and the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church Karekin II released the two white birds in the direction of Mount Ararat — the Biblical final resting place of Noah’s Ark — now in modern-day Turkey.
The long-planned gesture at the end of a three-day visit to ex-Soviet Armenia came in the face of fresh Turkish ire after Francis used the word “genocide” to refer to the century-old slaughter that Ankara furiously rejects.
The Vatican was forced to refute claims from Turkey that Pope Francis showed a “mentality of the Crusades” over his use of the term.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli late on Saturday labelled the pope’s declaration “very unfortunate” and said it bore traces of “the mentality of the Crusades”.
“It is not an objective statement that conforms with reality,” Canikli said.
– ‘Bridges not wall’ –
The Vatican rejected the allegations and said the pontiff was trying to build “bridges not walls” and had nothing against Turkey.
“If you listen to the pope, there is nothing that evokes a spirit of the Crusades,” spokesman Federico Lombardi told journalists in the Armenian capital Yerevan.
“Francis prayed for reconciliation of all and did not say one word against the Turkish people. The pope does not conduct Crusades, is not looking to organise a war.”
The pope himself defended his use of the word, admitting that he had strayed from his pre-prepared remarks by saying it but that it had been right to do so.
“After feeling the tone of the speech by the (Armenian) president and having already used the word last year at St Peter’s, I thought it would have sounded odd not to use the same word,” he told reporters on the flight back to Rome Sunday evening.
“I did not use the word with an offensive intention, but objectively,” he added.
When Francis first used the term “genocide” in 2015, on the centenary of the 1915-1917 killings that Armenians say wiped out some 1.5 million of their people, Ankara angrily recalled its envoy from the Holy See for nearly a year.
Armenians have long sought international recognition for the World War I killings as genocide.
Turkey — the Ottoman Empire’s successor state — argues that it was a collective tragedy in which both Turks and Armenians died.
– Conciliatory tone –
The pope on Saturday visited the Armenian genocide memorial in Yerevan but sought to strike a conciliatory tone during evening prayers.
“May God bless your future and grant that the people of Armenia and Turkey take up again the path of reconciliation, and may peace also spring forth in Nagorny Karabakh,” he said.
On Sunday morning Francis called for unity with the Armenian Apostolic Church as he attended a service alongside its head Karekin II.
“We should follow God’s call and hasten the steps towards… the communion between us becoming full,” Francis said, insisting such unity “does not mean a submission of one to the other or an absorption.”
The Armenian Apostolic Church separated from the Catholic Church in the fourth century after rejecting Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine of Jesus Christ’s dual nature — instead professing that Christ is both divine and human simultaneously.
According to the 2011 census, some 96 percent of the country’s three million people belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church.