The Pope and Genocide: Let's Look at the Whole Picture

Peter d'Errico

Pope Francis recently trumped political correctness on yet another sensitive topic: the Turkish massacre of Armenian people 100 years ago. The pope's remarks were made at a commemoration mass in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome for the centenary of the start of the mass killings (1915). He described the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks as "the first genocide of the 20th century."

As reported in The New York Times, the government of Turkey responded vehemently, expressing "grave disappointment and sadness" and characterizing the pope's statement as "far from any legal or historical reality."

The Turkish government denies that the killing of Armenians and Kurds during the First World War was genocide. In fact, Turkish law forbids anyone from referring to the event as genocide. Persons who use that terminology may be sent to prison for the crime of "denigrating Turkishness."

Turkey thus denies the historical record showing one-third of the Armenian people were wiped out in a series of organized killings over a period of about 4 years. More than twenty countries now recognize the Armenian massacre as genocide. The word "genocide" was initially coined by Raphael Lemkin as a description of the effort to eliminate the Armenian people.

In a sign of Francis' independent-minded approach to his papacy, the pope spoke out on Armenia despite the avoidance of the topic by Vatican diplomats. As the Times article suggests, "Francis clearly intended to provoke a response." He put the Armenian killings in the same category as other mass killings, including by the Nazis and the Soviets.

The pope's critique of governmental violence places genocide in its proper context, as the result of violent regimes "exploiting ethnic and religious differences." Genocide does not happen by accident or by inadvertence. Genocide happens as a planned result of political and religious intentions to dominate and destroy another people. The 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide defines "genocide" as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such."

Wikipedia, citing an array of documentary sources, describes the Armenian events as "implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labour, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre."

Anyone who has studied American history will immediately recognize the pattern of forced marches and death. They happened in the episode known as the "Trail of Tears." The historical record shows more than one trail of tears, many episodes in fact, when United States forces attacked with an intent to destroy Native peoples. President George Washington and Generals Sherman and Sheridan all called for "extermination" of Native Peoples. Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander of colonial forces prior to the American Revolution, referred to Indians as "vermine" and called for their "total extirpation."

Pope Francis speaking out about the Armenian genocide is significant, but the pope has not addressed U.S. history, nor has he looked closely enough at the Christian colonial record. His proposal to canonize the 18th century Spanish monk, Junipero Serra, this year during a visit to the U.S. shows he is in denial about American Indian genocide.

A Public Broadcasting System (PBS) profile of Serra describes the monk as "a driving force in the Spanish conquest and colonization of what is now the state of California." PBS points out that the Spanish missions were "intended both to Christianize the extensive Indian populations and to serve Spain's strategic interest by preventing Russian explorations and possible claims to North America's Pacific coast."

In fact, the papacy has a clouded record when it comes to genocide. Pope Pius XII, for example, never publicly condemned the Nazi persecution of Jews, even when Jewish people were being rounded up and deported from Rome. Pius XI actually supported Mussolini's fascist government, as detailed in David Kertzer's book, "The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe." An internal Vatican document from the period states: "Catholics could only think with terror of what might happen in Italy if the Honorable Mussolini’s government were to fall...and so they have every interest in supporting it."

When Pope John Paul II issued his "apology" for 2000 years of violence against Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies and Native peoples, he blamed individuals, rather than the church itself—a position similar to that of the Turkish government, which does not deny Armenians were killed, but ascribes the killing to more or less random acts of soldiers at war, rather than to premeditated government efforts to wipe out an entire people.

The pope's legacy as an opponent of genocide will not be complete or secure until he addresses and repudiates the doctrine of "Christian Discovery." This doctrine was crafted by the papacy in the 15th century, as the legal and religious infrastructure for Christian European colonialism in the "New World." It survives to this day in U.S. federal Indian law and in other colonizer state legal systems as the foundation for government domination of Native lands.

The U.S. Supreme Court founded the property rights of the U.S. against Native peoples on the basis of Christian Discovery doctrine in 1823, in Johnson v. McIntosh. The U.S. reaffirmed the doctrine in 1955, in Tee-Hit-Ton v. U.S. Both cases are cited regularly to this day in cases where the courts put down Native challenges to U.S. domination of their lives and lands.

If the pope truly intends to focus on the history of genocide, he will have to expand his references to include the North American context. Pope Francis could begin to address the Native American holocaust by abandoning the canonization of Juniper Serra. The next step would be to acknowledge the role of church doctrine as a facilitator of 500 years (and counting) of colonial violence and genocide and repudiate the doctrine of Christian Discovery.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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