ANKARA/IZMIR (Reuters) - When Pope Francis became the first pontiff to publicly call the 1915 Armenian massacre a genocide this weekend, the reaction from Ankara was swift and irate: it summoned the Vatican ambassador for a dressing down and recalled its own envoy.
Reaction in the Turkish media on Monday ranged from indignant to indifferent, depending on how close the newspaper is to the government. The response on Turkish street corners was muted, with many Turks dismissing the spat as empty politics and voicing a desire to leave history in the past.
Francis sparked the diplomatic row on Sunday by calling the massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians “the first genocide of the 20th century”, prompting Turkey to accuse him of inciting hatred.
Muslim Turkey agrees that Christian Armenians died in clashes with Ottoman soldiers beginning in April 1915, when some Armenians lived in the empire ruled from Istanbul, but denies hundreds of thousands were killed and that this amounted to genocide.
“The pope’s statements, which are far from historical and judicial facts, cannot be accepted,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter. “Religious offices are not places to incite hatred and revenge with baseless accusations.”
The fact that Vatican City is the world’s smallest state may have precluded further repercussions. When France’s parliament voted in 2011 to make Armenian genocide denial a crime, Turkey withdrew its ambassador, suspended joint military manoeuvres and stopped political contacts for a while.
Sitting on a ferry off the western port of Izmir, a man who declined to give his full name said it was time to stop bickering about the past.
“Every year, it’s the same thing. April comes and all the Western politicians are talking about genocide. There is no such animosity between the people of these two countries,” said Ibrahim, 48, taking a sip of tea. “We must leave history behind us and focus on the future.”
Armenia and its large diaspora in the United States argue that Turkey has not fully owned up to its wartime past.
“If you ask any ordinary Armenian or Turk, I am positive we do not care about this as much as people think we do,” said Dursun Okan, a 27-year-old banker.
Still others saw the pope’s remarks as interference by foreigners and wondered whether the United States, a traditional ally of Turkey, would eventually use the word “genocide”.
Unlike almost two dozen European and South American states that use the term, Washington avoids it and has warned legislators that Ankara could cut off military cooperation if they voted to adopt it.
“I believe Obama will call it a genocide as well, considering the influence of the Armenian population in the United States,” said Serhat, a university student in Ankara. “It would surprise me if no one else called it a genocide.”
Pope Francis appeared to refer to his use of the term “genocide” on Monday, saying in a sermon that “today the Church’s message is one of the path of frankness, the path of Christian courage.”
Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Tom Heneghan