Much has been written on the tragedy that decimated the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. However, there are still unpublished aspects, such as the role played by the Holy See during this dark page of contemporary history.
A ray of light comes now with the book “The Holy See and the Extermination of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire,” published recently by Italian Publisher Cantagalli. The book details historical research carefully extracted from the Vatican’s Secret Archive that, in addition to offering the reader extensive documentation on the killing, enables him to enter in the event, revealing names, faces and actions of those who in Rome tried to put an end to the “Great Evil.”
The authors are Ormar Vigano and Valentina Karakhanian, up to now Assistant of the Ambassador of Armenia in Italy, and at present Postulator of the Cause of Saints in Rome’s Pontifical Urbanian University, researcher in the Vatican’s Secret Archives and the Historical Archive of the State Secretariat. ZENIT interviewed her before Pope Francis’ trip to Armenia.
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ZENIT: The objective of your book is to analyze the role played by the Holy See during the genocide perpetrated at the beginning of the 20th century. A role, states the book, that after a century continues in “the shade”; in what sense?
Karakhanian: In the studies of the annihilation of the Armenian people, with few exceptions little or nothing is said about the Holy See. However, the letters on the extermination that are found in the Vatican Archives have been amply available to scholars since 1985. And we are not speaking of a few documents, but of folders full of notes, telegrams, reports and letters. Documents that because of their great importance, quantity, variety and temporal continuity are a valuable resource to reconstruct all that happened in Turkey during <the time> of the two last Sultans.
Above all, they show the incessant activity of the Holy See and its representatives in Constantinople to halt the massacre underway – not only of the Armenians but also of the Melkites, Maronites, Syrians, Chaldeans: all victims of a violent persecution against Christianity.
ZENIT: A persecution that still meets with difficulties when it is described as “genocide” …
Karakhanian: It’s not the intention of this work to enter into the definition of genocide applied to the “Great Evil.” In fact, in my opinion the word isn’t pertinent. And I explain why here: thanks to a broad and well-founded selection, the documents kept in the Vatican Archives speak about how the history of the oppression of the Armenians followed a program that began in 1915 until the end of the Great War.
However, it’s good to point out that those who describe the tragedy of the Armenians during their deportation leave no doubt about the fact that the writers of the documents and their recipients had very clear the measure and magnitude of what was happening in Anatolia and Syria: deportations, massacres, murders, destruction, shedding of blood, violence, killings, forced conversion, abductions. Words that, aligned next to one another perhaps will give more life to the sensation of horror about what was carried out 100 years ago.
In this connection, the term genocide is irrelevant: in addition to being a neologism, it’s a category of interpretation that is more centered on the responsibility of those that committed the crimes rather than on the crimes themselves. From this point of view, the genocide, instead of saying too much, says little.
ZENIT: We are speaking about the work carried out by the Holy See during the extermination. What did you find in your research?
Karakhanian: In the first place, it must be remembered that the Catholic Church — as opposed to the various nations that, thanks to their Embassies and Consulates had a privileged position at that moment from which to observe the events – had from Palestine to Syria, from the Bosphorous to the Caucasus, missionaries of Europe and religious of the different Oriental Churches, divided in dioceses and parishes. A capillary <effect> that is lost today, but that in the depth of the Vatican’s Archives was crystalized in a unique patrimony of testimonies. The Vatican’s documents speak, in fact, of the different attempts of the Church’s representatives to halt the killing being done.
From the moment the extermination was perceived, the Holy See tried all possibilities to halt and contain the fury against defenseless populations and take spiritual and material aid to the survivors dispersed and deprived of everything.
From the protests of the Apostolic Delegate in Constantinople, Monsignor Angel Maria Dolci, to the request that Benedict XV wrote by hand to the Sultan; from the collection of funds for poor Armenians, to the project of ships with humanitarian aid with the Vatican’s flags, much work but almost solitary in the plaster casted international context of alliances. And that, as we have said, is there for the scholars today.
ZENIT: In addition to Benedict XV, Eugenio Pacelli also appears in the work. What did the future Pope Pius XII do in this tragic context?
Karakhanian: During the “Great Evil,” Pacelli was Apostolic Nuncio in Munich. What emerged from our studies especially was his great experience and capacity to mediate, in addition to his great desire to support persecuted persons. In particular, the then Nuncio Pacelli obtained the collaboration of his colleague Monsignor Dolci, one of the principal protagonists of the Vatican’s action. Both carried out a real strategy to save the people, to enable them to flee or send them material aid through Germany, Austria and Hungary.
ZENIT: Do you see a common thread between the work carried out by the different Popes in favor of Armenia?
Karakhanian: Without a doubt, there was always tireless work that the Holy See carried out in favor of the last, the persecuted and the needy. It’s what was done in the time of Benedict XV, and with Pius XII after the genocide, for an independent Armenia. How can we forget John Paul II’s trip and the signing of the Joint Declaration with Karekin? All this long history of friendship, solidarity, fraternity is being sealed again with Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia.
ZENIT: What do you expect from Pope Francis’ visit?
Karakhanian: I can only rejoice … When I gave my book to the Holy Father I gave him the greeting that we Armenians use: “Let your foot bless this land.” This trip is fundamental for me and for my people, which is really awaiting him with open arms.
Moreover, to have heard him say with his characteristic humility: “I’m going to visit that land as a pilgrim,” simply helps us to value our faith. The Armenian people identifies with its faith; therefore, my desire is that this Pope’s visit may help us to rediscover it and live it better. There is also the hope that in this difficult moment, due to the war of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Pope’s presence will bring a message of peace and consolation that can take root in that martyred land. And that those two doves that Francis will release towards Mount Ararat, may be a message of peace to the world, to Armenia and each Armenian of the diaspora, who dreams of his homeland, of his native land.
[Translation by ZENIT]