BRIEFING: Armenian Genocide: what’s in a name?

by - 24th April 2015

A HUNDRED years ago, an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians, along with or followed shortly by other minorities including Kurds, were killed or otherwise deprived of their lands and homes by the Ottomans in an event that for sheer horror compares with the genocides of Hitler and Pol Pot. 

Today, 24 April 2015, marks the centenary of start of the Armenian Genocide, known in Armenian - and also in US Presidential English - as Metz Yeghern, literally The Great Evil or Crime.

We are faced, therefore, with the Shakespearean question – does genocide by any other name smell quite so foul?

Both Jewish and Muslim traditions counsel that the needless taking of one human life is equivalent to the extinguishing of a world, as reported in the Talmud and referenced in the Qur’an – how much more so, the attempt to extinguish an entire culture?

For the Armenians, the genocidal nature of the events of 1915 is not in doubt. Turkey, on the other hand, is less willing than Germany was after the WWII Shoah to admit to so horrendous a crime – and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thus pressured the White House not to use the English term ‘genocide’.

In deference to Turkish geopolitical pressure, President Obama opted for the equivalent Armenian term, Metz Yeghern, taking considerable heat from those who viewed his choice as a cop-out.

The politics are well known. What is less known is the role religion plays in the event. To understand the religious dimension of the genocide, and by extension of Armenian sentiment condemning President Obama’s decision, we must understand the importance of Christianity to the Armenian people, and the changing relations between Christians and Muslims in Anatolia across the centuries.

Vicken Cheterian, in Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century (Hurst, 2015), writes: ‘Religion and language are the two markers of Armenian identity. For many centuries, the identity of the Armenians was closely intertwined with membership of the Armenian Apostolic church, one of the religious communities of the Ottoman Empire.’


Pope Francis celebrated an Armenian Rite Mass at St Peter's in Rome on 12 April this year, attended by Serž Sargsyan, President of the Republic of Armenia, HH Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, and other dignitaries. In his words of greeting at the beginning of the ceremony, held to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian massacres, the Pope makes it very clear how deeply interwoven religious belief and Armenian national identity are: ‘Your Christian identity is indeed ancient, dating from the year 301, when Saint Gregory the Illuminator guided Armenia to conversion and baptism. You were the first among nations in the course of the centuries to embrace the Gospel of Christ. That spiritual event indelibly marked the Armenian people, as well as its culture and history, in which martyrdom holds a pre-eminent place, as attested to symbolically by the sacrificial witness of Saint Vardan and his companions in the fifth century.’

Pope Francis then turns his attention to the centenary, and skillfully quotes Pope John Paul II’s use of the term genocide while calling it in his own terms a ‘tragic experience’: ‘This faith also accompanied and sustained your people during the tragic experience one hundred years ago “in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century” (John Paul II and Karekin II, Common Declaration, Etchmiadzin, 27 September 2001).’

He continues by noting that his predecessor at the time, Pope Benedict XV, wrote to Sultan Mehmed V, ‘pleading that the many innocents be saved (see Letter of 10 September 1915).’

Turkey was not amused.


At the invitation of HH Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, a number of heads of state and clergy, including Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America,are joining in commemoration of the centennial anniversary of the genocide, and ceremonials at the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Solemnities are scheduled to include a Vigil on the 22nd, followed by the Canonization Service for Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide on the 23rd April, and will commemorate the genocide from the perspective of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

It should be noted that the Armenian Apostolic Church itself is one of the ‘Oriental Orthodox’ churches, a term used to distinguish it from ‘Eastern Orthodox’ churches such as the Greek and Russian churches; it differs from them in not accepting the formulation agreed by the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) as to the nature of Christ (technically, the Oriental Orthodox churches are miaphysite).


It was the Ottoman Empire that inaugurated the Armenian genocide that terrible day in 1915, and Kemal Atatürk who ensured that the new secular Turkishstate would continue to deny Armenian claims for redress, restoration and justice, and Turkey still ‘refuses to admit the historical fact of the event’, as filmmaker Atom Egoyan puts it.

Mehmet Gormez, head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, the highest religious authority in largely Muslim Turkey, asked  Reuters in a recent interview, ‘Is the current situation of millions of Syrian refugees much less cause for concern to the Vatican than what happened during the Armenian deportation?’ His comparison was with Turkey’s absorption of refugees from Syria's current civil war. ‘I find the Pope's statement immoral,’ he added, ‘and can't reconcile it with basic Christian values.’

Last year, however, Erdogan apologized to the grand-children of those who had died, and it may be that the situation is edging closer to a reconciliation.

In his recent New Yorker piece, A Century of Silence, Raffi Katchadourian reported on the town of Diyarbakir, where the Mayor has said openly, ‘Our grand-parents committed wrongs, but we, their grand-children, will not repeat them’ – and has rebuilt the church of SourpGiragos.

Turks and Armenians, Muslims and Christians, as all humans do, have the varied abilities to experience, to deny, to remember, and to forgive. The choice is theirs.


The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide’s doctrine setting forth the transnational Responsibility to Protect suggests the direction in which the international community is presently headed, stating: ‘The duty to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities lies first and foremost with the State, but the international community has a role that cannot be blocked by the invocation of sovereignty. Sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; it is a charge of responsibility where States are accountable for the welfare of their people. This principle is enshrined in article 1 of the Genocide Convention and embodied in the principle of “sovereignty as responsibility” and in the concept of the Responsibility to Protect.’

It is here, in the grand scale of geopolitics – as exemplified by the Armenian centenary – that political ideals and realpolitik collide.


Both the Talmud (specifically Sanhedrin 37a) and Qur’an (5:32) state that genocide is truly foul. A footnote to the Soncino Talmud comments that this equivalence arises from the fact that Adam was one single person from whom all of humanity is descended: ‘all mankind originated from one man.’ If the taking of a single human life is equivalent to extinguishing a world, how much more so, is the extinction of an entire culture?

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a selection of his posthumous writings, says: ‘The whole earth cannot be in greater distress than one soul.’

The Christian apologetic writer and novelist CS Lewis concurs: ‘We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk about the “unimaginable sum of human misery.” … There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.’

As political scientists and their advisors debate the ideals and realisms of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, it is worth remembering that human suffering itself is literally immeasurable: it can neither be summed up numerically nor adequately verbally summarized – the human mind is simply not up to the task.

Suffering of this magnitude can only be experienced, remembered, forgotten, or forgiven: that’s how deep it cuts into the human soul.