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Turkey says the Pope is part of an ‘evil front’ because he used the word ‘genocide’

Pope Francis, left, is greeted by Catholicos Aram I, spiritual head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, during an Armenian-Rite Mass on the occasion of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in St. Peter's Basilica  at the Vatican on April 12. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Turkey's outrage over comments made by Pope Francis this past weekend, deeming the massacre of Armenians a century ago a "genocide," continues to smolder. Next week marks the centennial of the beginning of what the pope called "the first genocide of the 20th century" at Sunday Mass in commemoration of the killings.

Ankara reacted furiously, recalling its ambassador to the Vatican and issuing a barrage of strong condemnations. On Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made some even tougher remarks: "Currently, an evil front is being formed against us," he said. "Now the pope has joined this conspiracy."

Davutoglu was speaking at an event announcing the manifesto of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, ahead of general elections in June. The spat with the pope most likely offered good nationalistic fodder for local consumption. The prime minister went on, hailing the Ottoman Empire's long history of providing sanctuary to the Jews expelled by Spain in the 15th century:

I am addressing the pope: Those who escaped from the Catholic inquisition in Spain found peace in our just order in Istanbul and İzmir. We are ready to discuss historical issues, but we will not let people insult our nation through history.

The issue of the Armenian genocide is one of profound sensitivity in Turkey — and awkwardness for Turkey's NATO allies, including the United States. The traumas and upheavals triggered by these events directly shaped the far-flung Armenian diaspora, which plays a leading role in global advocacy around how to remember and commemorate the slaughters.

On Wednesday, the European parliament in Brussels called on Turkey to recognize what happened as a "genocide." The motion was dismissed by Davutoglu's boss, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said the appeal "went in one ear and out from the other."

The massacres took place amid the wider conflict of World War I, which led to the unraveling and demise of the Ottoman Empire. Successive Turkish governments have insisted the scale of the slaughter has been distorted, and that many Turks were killed amid the chaos. As many as 1.5 million Armenians, by some accounts, were systematically killed or disappeared.

"In 1913, there were up to 2 million [ethnic Armenians] in the Ottoman Empire. When World War I broke out, the Ottoman government ordered their mass deportation. A few years later, there was barely one-tenth that number in Turkey, the rest having been exiled or killed," details Thomas de Waal, in his new book "Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide."

Armenian suffering at the time was well-documented, particularly by American observers. Former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt wrote in May 1918 that his country's entrance into World War I against Germany and its allies was justified "because the Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and failure to act against Turkey is to condone it."

The very term "genocide," attributed to the Polish-born Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, was invoked precisely with what befell the Armenians in mind. But, as de Waal's book charts, the question of remembering it has become a political hot potato in the decades since, shrouded by Cold War squeamishness and stubborn Turkish nationalism.

In some ways, Erdogan's government has attempted to soften or reform the conversation surrounding the massacres. Ankara has invested significantly in the restoration of old Armenian churches in eastern Turkey.

Last year, in what was considered an unprecedented act, Erdogan offered condolences to Armenian victims of the "inhumane" deportations in 1915. But he stopped short of calling it genocide and condemned the government of Armenia for using it as "an excuse for hostility" toward Turkey.

"Millions of people of all religions and ethnicities lost their lives in the First World War," said Erdogan.

Like Davutoglu, Erdogan was less than pleased this week with the Pope's intervention into the matter. He warned the pope not to "repeat this mistake" and reiterated his government's insistence that its archives were "open" and that a "joint commission" of historians should be established to reckon with the past. (The historical consensus, though, is that the genocide happened.)

"Whenever politicians ... assume the duties of historians, then delirium comes out, not fact," said Erdogan. It's a curious statement, not only in this context but in others.

Erdogan has been known to pronounce repeatedly upon matters of history, including his somewhat perplexing insistence on the arrival of Muslim seafarers to the New World ahead of Christopher Columbus, which has led even to the construction of a proposed mosque in Cuba.

In the case of the events of 1915, history very much remains the subject of politics.