Pope Francis Says the Word: 'Genocide'

The blunt-speaking Pope on Sunday set off a diplomatic row by calling the slaughter of Armenians during World War I "the first genocide of the 20th century." 

While some 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by Ottoman Turks between 1914 and 1918, politicians including George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- who during his 2008 campaign vowed to call the slaughter a genocide -- have refrained from using the word, fearing political fallout.

Pope Francis, however, had no such fears. 

"In the past century, our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies," the Pope said at a Mass at St. Peter's Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacres.

"The first, which is widely considered 'the first genocide of the twentieth century,' struck your own Armenian people," he said, referencing a 2001 declaration by Pope John Paul II and the head of the Armenian church.

The Pope made clear that world leaders who avoid the word are cowards.

"Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it," he said at the start of a Mass in the Armenian Catholic rite in St. Peter's Basilica honoring the centenary. He called on all heads of state to declare what happened to Armenians and to oppose such crimes "without ceding to ambiguity or compromise."

And he used the same terminology -- "complicit silence" -- that he has hitherto reserved for denouncing slaughter of Christians and other religious minorities by Islamic extremists.

"It seems that the human family has refused to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today too there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand by," he said.

Turkey, of course, is furious, and summoned the Vatican ambassador to express its anger. The Foreign Ministry said that a statement would be coming soon to express "great disappointment and sadness" over the Pope's words.

Turkey claims the toll has been inflated, saying many of the Armenians who died perished in civil war. 

Head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Aram I, applauded the Pope. "International law spells out clearly that condemnation, recognition and reparation of a genocide are closely interconnected," he said.