What the Pope Can Do for Armenia

What he said.

Photographer: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes it's necessary to state the obvious, and sometimes it isn't. So which was it Sunday when Pope Francis described the Ottoman Empire's 1915 slaughter of more than a million ethnic Armenians as genocide?

In one sense, the recognition comes late: This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Ottoman leadership's systematic campaign to exterminate or expel the entire Armenian population from Eastern Anatolia. (The "Young Turk" generals running the empire during World War I saw these Christian citizens as a fifth column for the allied armies that were dismembering it.) This was genocide, something Turkey has to come to terms with. The Armenian atrocity helped to inspire the creation of both the word and -- in 1948 -- the crime.

Yet Sunday's remarks can also be viewed as spoken too soon. That's because Turks as a nation have only in recent years begun to recognize the truth of what happened, or even had access to the historical record. Until about 15 years ago, the subject was taboo for research by Turkish historians; schoolchildren weren't taught the history of what Armenians call the "Great Catastrophe." More than denial, there was ignorance.

Since then, Turkey has come a long way. Turkish historians such as Taner Akcam have given unsparing accounts. Last year, in a courageous first step, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first Turkish leader to apologize to Armenians for what happened, although he continues to oppose describing the slaughter as genocide, with its association to Nazi Germany. Inevitably, the Turkish reaction to Francis's words was furious.

Ultimately, though, a word cannot make what happened a century ago any better or worse. Far more important is what Turks and Armenians do in the here and now.

It's easy enough to say that the two nations should reconcile, that the children of Armenians who fled into exile should be able to return to Turkey if they wish, that they should be allowed to trade and to restore their churches and cultural heritage. Yet the border between Armenia and Turkey remains closed, despite a 2009 agreement to open it. The deal, which would have set up a joint historical committee, ultimately failed because it became linked to the question of Armenia's military occupation of part of neighboring Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

These are the unresolved issues that matter most today. Pope Francis deserves some credit for publicly speaking the g-word (as Pope John Paul II deserved credit for writing it 16 years ago), and for combining his condemnation of the Ottoman atrocity with other genocides, including by Christians. The true test of papal diplomacy, however, is whether Francis can help revive the abandoned reconciliation process, appeal to Erdogan's desire to lead in the region, and bring Turks and Armenians together again after a century of division.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.