Pope’s Silence on Armenian Genocide Shameful Benedict Missed a Chance During His Historic Visit to Turkey

After an initial foray into interfaith relations by inciting almost 2 billion Muslims with ill-advised references to the legacy of their prophet Mohammed, Pope Benedict XVI leaves Turkey with the press hailing the visit a success. Much like the war in Iraq, however, defining the simple concept of "success" has become increasingly like declaring "mission accomplished." Case in point, the pope’s recent visit to Turkey. Following the pontiff’s gaffe heard ’round the Muslim world, the fact that larger protests and riots didn’t accompany his visit to Turkey must have certainly elicited a collective sigh of relief from the Vatican and tempted many prognosticators to proclaim the trip a success. Perhaps prompted by a sense of relief and joy at not being embarrassed by a rancorous reception upon his arrival to Turkey, the pontiff even took time to don his political advisor cap and stump for Turkey’s admission into the European Union. Fortunately, the more discerning European nations see that issue in a slightly different light and are waiting for Turkey to adopt something other than medieval standards of justice before setting out the welcome mat. Still, as the leading spiritual figure for Christians around the world, much more is expected and required of the pope. After all was said and done, and as the cameras rolled and the press jockeyed to capture and transmit images of the pope being led on a tour of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque by local Islamic and Christian leaders, the press failed to capture the big, fat, noisy elephant parked squarely amidst this assemblage–Turkey’s ongoing legacy of intolerance and oppression. For too long, the various Christian and other minorities of Turkey have silently suffered the suppression of their rights and the deliberate erosion of their collective memories through the state sponsored destruction of ancient churches and other historical monumen’s dating back almost two millennia. These minorities remain mute, not unlike hostages, who are constantly reminded of the harsh consequences visited upon those who dare speak the truth, or see the elephant for what it is. This past year’s stern waggle of the finger by the Turkish government at the mischievous and misbehaving came when the Turkish government prosecuted and convicted the editor of the Armenian language weekly Agos, Hrant Dink for "insulting" Turkish identity. Ironically, Dink’s alleged transgression can be traced to a series of articles he wrote encouraging Armenia’s in the diaspora to shift their focus away from outing the Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1918 and toward assisting the fledgling Republic of Armenia. Nonetheless, explanation notwithstanding, Dink got dunked and was eventually convicted. According to press accounts, aside from a vague reference to the Armenian genocide — painfully couched as "tragic conditions … experienced in the past century" — to the Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul, the pontiff said precious little about the genocide or Turkey’s unconscionable denial of the same to the Pope’s hosts, the people who actually needed to hear it. While this may be the most glaring omission from what most might envision as an item that would have been on a spiritual leader’s "things to do list," it was, unfortunately, not the only one. The pope evidently failed to mention the destruction of some of the oldest remaining Christian churches in the world located in the ancient Armenian city of Ani, located in present day eastern Turkey. Nor is there any indication that he brought up the issue of the destruction of Greek Orthodox churches in Northern Cyprus, which remains illegally occupied by the Turks after the invasion of 1974. It is also unclear whether the pope broached the mistreatment of the Muslim Kurds. Of course, in order to be understood by his hosts, the Pope would have had to refer to them as "Mountain Turks," since the Turkish government blanches at the thought of identifying the 8 million to 10 million Kurds living in Turkey as "Kurds." While the Armenia’s, Greeks and Kurds may be the minorities with the most well known grievances, the Jewish and Syrian Orthodox Christian communities have legitimate cause to complain as well. It is no secret that the Christian and other minority communities in Turkey constantly walk a thin line when seeking to preserve their religious and cultural heritage. These minorities have learned to march to the beat of the intolerant Turkish drum, regardless of the indignities they continue to suffer. No one can blame them for assuming that position, given Turkey’s history of intolerance and retribution. However, it is situations like this where leadership steps in. In fact, the very purpose of leadership is to speak for those who can not. Evidently, such leadership was not on display as the cameras rolled and dignitaries exchanged pleasantries while strolling through the expansive Blue Mosque. In the hopes of bridging differences that exist between the Christian and Muslim worlds, turning a blind eye to the festering wounds that exist only serve to widen the gap between East and West. Perhaps we vest too much hope in religious leaders to stand up and say the things that need to be said. However, I can’t help but look at the photos of the pope and other religious leaders assembled and feel that the teetering elephant is ready to collapse upon these leader’s followers. Seems to me that if we start accepting something less than success as success, we may end up having to deal with the same type of success as we have in Iraq. Mark Geragos is a lawyer who has represented former Rep. Gary Condit, former first brother Roger Clinton, Academy award-winning actress Winona Ryder, pop star Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson.


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