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Pope Francis Denounces Armenian Genocide

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pope Francis is in Armenia this weekend, where he risked angering Turkey by using the word genocide to describe the Ottoman era slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians. It's not the first time he's used the term. In 2015, the pope used it for the first time publicly, and Turkey's President Erdogan told him not to do it again. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Yerevan. Sylvia, thanks very much for being with us.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: The last time Pope Francis called the mass killings of Armenians genocide, it was last year in Rome. And Turkey called back its ambassador to the Vatican, so there was speculation the pope would just not use the term this time. What happened?

POGGIOLI: Well, at a Vatican briefing last Tuesday, the spokesman Father Frederico Lombardi used the Armenian term Medz Yeghern, which means the Great Evil. And he bristled when he was asked why he didn't say genocide. So when the prepared text of the Pope's speech last night used only the Armenian term, most of us thought that was a possible diplomatic overture toward Turkey.

In his actual delivery, the Pope added the word genocide. He said that genocide made possible by the twisted racial ideological or religious aims that darken the minds of the tormentors, even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples." That drew a standing ovation from the president of Armenia and the diplomatic corps.

SIMON: The pope visited the genocide memorial today. What did he say there?

POGGIOLI: Well, it was a a very powerful scene. Francis stood with his head bowed in prayer next to the Armenian apostolate patriarch and a group of black hooded Orthodox bishops while musicians performed a mournful melody on an ancient Armenian flute that's called the duduk. Here's what it sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUDUK MUSIC)

POGGIOLI: The memorial itself is very impressive - 12 tall, slanted slabs of rock that suggest figures in mourning in a circle around an eternal flame. Francis prayed, and then he wrote in the memorial guest book, here I pray with pain in my heart so that never again will there be tragedies like this. He went on - may God protect the memory of the Armenian people. Memory should never be watered down or forgotten. Memory is the source of peace and the future. And I've heard a lot of Armenians who are mostly Orthodox express admiration and thanks that the leader of the Catholic Church acknowledges their history and loyalty to the Christian faith.

SIMON: Before the pope landed in Yerevan, I gather he met with reporters on the plane. And he was asked about the subject of the past couple of days - Britain's exit from the European Union. What did he say?

POGGIOLI: Well, he looked very pensive, and he said this was the will of the people. He added this requires a great responsibility on the part of all of us to guarantee the good of the people of the United Kingdom and also the good and coexistence of the entire European continent.

Francis is a strong believer in the European Union. Just last month, he used very harsh words when he accepted the prestigious Charlemagne Prize from top European leaders. He scolded the European Union for losing its way and for its fraying sense of unity. He said, I dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime. I can't help but think the pope must be very saddened by the referendum outcome.

SIMON: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Yerevan. Thanks very much for being with us.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.