One hundred years are not enough to forget, especially if it is about a massacre such as the “Great Evil” that profoundly affected the Armenian people at the beginning of the 20thcentury, exterminating 1.5 million men, women, children and families.
Vatican expert, Franca Giansoldati knows it well. A journalist for the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, recently authored a new book entitled “La Marcia Senza Ritorno: Il Genocidio Armeno (The March without Return. The Armenian Genocide).
Giansoldati, who spent years of study and research for the new book, even shed tears as she went deeper into the details of the cruel event which still remains a gap in history. In an interview with ZENIT, Giansoldati speaks on her work, which was also ‘blessed’ by the Pope, and explains the reason for the troubled reactions of Turkey to the Pontiff’s words last Sunday regarding what was, to all intents and purposes, “the first genocide of the 20thcentury.”
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ZENIT: The Pope said the word “genocide.” And this marks a turn in the history of the papacy and of the Vatican, notwithstanding that St. John Paul II already pronounced this word in the “Joint Declaration” with Karekin II of 2001. In your opinion, how is Francis’ gesture interpreted, as a hazard or a courageous move?
Giansoldati: The Pope tore the veil and from now on impedes anyone from being hypocritical, inside the Church and outside, the laity as well as the Religious, believers as well as non-believers. The moral weight the Pope has is enormous and the fact that he used this word, after one hundred years, was not taken for granted but a willed act. It is right that the Church of Rome recognizes a page of history that was always put to one side, treated by many as a “diplomatic tactic”, forgetting that 1.5 million people died there, many of whom were Christians. Therefore, last Sunday’s celebration was a moving moment, as if the Church had accompanied these dead on their last trip, buried them and recognized them. And the word “genocide” could only be the umbrella to frame what happened.
ZENIT: Why are some bothered by the word “genocide”?
Giansoldati: “Genocide” is a term coined in 1948 after World War II, however at the time of the extermination of the Armenians it was unknown. Yet, words are found that recall the meaning in documents of the time, not only in documents kept in the archives of the Vatican, but also in the archives of the German Foreign Ministry, of the American and in our Italian Ministry. They are documents that Gorrini wrote, Honorary Consul at Trabzon until June of 1915, who already then, as an eyewitness, wrote what he saw happening under the windows of the Consulate. And those that were not of the “pogrom,” of the spot violence: he saw a systematic plan, studied at table, meticulously perfected to take out of the Ottoman Empire a minority considered somewhat as a cancer. Be it because in that period there was the poisoned fruit of nationalism, be it because the Armenians constituted a non-homogeneous minority. They were Christians. And this is an element that then became not secondary for the evolution of the affair
ZENIT: In what sense?
Giansoldati: The genocide of the Armenians stems from political and economic bases, because the Ottoman Empire was absolutely indebted and therefore wanted to confiscate the properties of the Armenians who were a particularly well-off minority. However, the fundamental element to understand the religious connotation of this extermination is the fact that a minimal minority of Armenians in order to save themselves decided to embrace Islam and renounce Christianity. They decided, namely, to ‘homogenize themselves” to Muslim Turkey. And they were saved. All! Therefore, in the end, the religious fact in this plan to cancel these people from the face of the earth — as American ambassador Morgenthau wrote in his reports – if at the beginning was not determinant, it soon became the gasoline that fueled hatred, the hunt of those who are different.
ZENIT: Turkey, however, is obstinate in an attitude of denial. It was demonstrated by the reaction of these days: from the summoning of the Apostoli Nuncio to the last aggressive statements yesterday by President Erdogan against the Pontiff. Why?
Giansoldati: First of all because of the question of economic compensation, which is not in fact secondary, because it could create real economic problems for Turkey.
ZENIT: Yet, in the letter of “condolences” to the Armenians of April 23, 2014, Erdogan said that Turkey would be willing to pay in the case that a responsibility was recognized.
Giansoldati: I read that letter meticulously and it was structured to be a denial. The President talks of closeness to the grief but keeping present that it was also the grief of Turks and so on. In my opinion, Erdogan is losing a very great opportunity, which the Pope offered him on a silver platter last Sunday at Saint Peter’s: the possibility of beginning an itinerary, certainly chequered and very long, but which could lead to a shared memory and to a peace process. For that reason it would be a treasure. It must be said in any case that the reactions to the Pope’s words were above the lines because in Turkey we are in the midst of an electoral campaign, and Erdogan is afraid of losing the consensus especially of the right. Therefore, the agitation of these days was almost taken for granted.
ZENIT: Is there a risk to diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Turkey?
Giansoldati: Absolutely not. There are good relations, we saw it also during the Pope’s trip in November. At this moment, certainly, there are “stressful” relations. We must hope that they not bring harm to the Catholic community that is there: 20,000 persons, a small minority, but that, however, lives in difficult conditions, especially in the peripheral areas. In any case, there is another aspect to consider.
ZENIT: Which is?
Giansoldati: That there are still two deaths that weigh on the conscience of Turkish politics, for which today we still don’t have answers: the death of Bishop Padovese and of Don Andrea Santoro, both killed to the cry of “Allah Akbar.” It could also have been “the madman on duty” who killed them, but it is necessary to reflect and to give answers – perhaps reflecting on the climate of hatred that evidently smoulders under the ashes. Up to now, Turkey has remained silent.
ZENIT: It remained so also last year when in August, ISIS destroyed the church of Deir Ezzor, “the Auschwitz of the Armenians.”
Giansoldati: Exactly. I was very stricken by the fact that on April 24, while in all countries of the world, where the Armenian diaspora has put down roots, Masses were celebrated and bells tolled for the dead but not in Turkey, because there is the prohibition to recall this moment, also from a religious point of view. Instead, just one tolling of a bell could be a symbol.
ZENIT: Turning to St. John Paul II, he also used the word “genocide,” and he also caused furious reactions.
Giansoldati: Yes, but not so violent. I remember that John Paul II wanted to go to Yerevan, but he was constrained to postpone the trip several times. Two-three years of preparation would be necessary because Turkey was exerting pressures, putting obstacles, therefore the diplomacy of the Holy See proceeded with caution. Cardinal Sodano suggested to the Pope to defer the trip, not to go, not to use the word “genocide.” But John Paul II, in addition to his sickness, which was advancing, felt a moral weight because 2001 marked the 1700 years of the conversion of Armenia to Christianity and he wanted to celebrate this event. In the end he imposed himself on diplomacy itself.
ZENIT: Why did he do so?
Giansoldati: Because it was an act that was due, because those million and a half persons did not die of cold. Sometimes the statistics become cold, but let’s try to put before eyes a million and a half faces of children, of raped women, of mothers who overwhelmed threw their children into the rivers because they couldn’t see them die of hunger anymore. Let’s try to imagine this infinite cruelty, as if it were the sequel of a film, perhaps a trembling comes to one’s conscience. And when Pope Francis speaks of “an ecumenism of blood” – a theological concept that, in my opinion, is of a total and explosive depth, which will have political reflections – he takes up what [St. John Paull II] did at the time: impose himself on diplomacy.
ZENIT: How does all this emerge in your recently published book “The March without Return”?
Giansoldati: I am not an historian but a chronicler; therefore, I have tried to divulge the entity of this gap in history. I searched in several archives, also in Il Messaggero, where the first interview was published in Italy with a diplomat who gives witness to those events: the famous Gorrini, now considered a “Righteous” of Armenia. Above all, I based myself on the Vatican documents. The big work was done by Father Georges Ruyssen, a Belgian Jesuit historian who for years read, catalogued and published in seven tomes all that happened in that period, which had to do with the event. There is a bit of everything. When I met Father Georges I said to him: “While I read your pages and wrote, I burst out crying. And he answered me: “I did too.” I think this material can give some sort of answer to historians, also to Turkish historians.
ZENIT: After so many years of the Vatican, how can you be interested in this subject?
Giansoldati: It was almost an accident. In the middle of the 90s talk began about recognizing the genocide in the Italian Parliament. At the time I worked for Adnkronos and I often received press releases on the subject. I began to be interested. A bell had already rung for me at the University: I received my degree in Political Science with a concentration in history, and, while taking numerous exams on World War II , on the Nazi extermination, etc., on the Armenian genocide I didn’t even read three lines. It is still true today: some time ago I went to speak at a High School of Rome and the youngsters knew absolutely nothing about this event. I was overwhelmed.
ZENIT: Is it true that you have also sent a copy of the book to the Pope?
Giansoldati: To tell you the truth, he also read the drafts before the publication. The Pope encourages very much all research that can help to divulge with eyes of truth and objectivity what happened.
ZENIT: Regarding Pope Francis, you have known him closely you also interviewed him, becoming the second woman in history to interview a Pontiff. In light of this and of your twenty years of experience as a Vatican expert, how would you summarize this pontificate in a phrase?
Giansoldati: Pope Francis will succeed in bringing the periphery to the center. From the peripheral, marginal, distant events not only from the geographic but also from the historical point of view, he has brought it to the center of the world’s attention. And what happened in the Basilica on Sunday demonstrates it.