Delivering mass Sunday at St. Peter's Basilica, Pope Francis called the massacre of Armenian civilians by Turkish forces during World War I "the 20th century's first genocide," prompting Turkey to recall its ambassador to the Vatican just hours later.
Several top Armenian officials and religious figures were present during the ceremony, which was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of massacres by the Ottoman Empire that killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, mostly Christians.
"In the past century, our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies," the pope said. "The first, which is widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century, struck your own Armenian people."
The comments immediately drew the ire of the Turkish government, which called its ambassador Mehmet Pacaci back to Ankara "for consultation," and summoned the Holy See's own ambassador for a meeting in the Turkish capital.
The Turkish government denies that genocide took place, taking the official line that 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians died as a result of civil war during WWI.
The Pope's statement, which is out of touch with both historical facts and legal basis, is simply unacceptable. +++
— Mevlüt Çavu?o?lu (@MevlutCavusoglu)April 12, 2015
Turkish foreign affairs minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu called the pope's statement "unacceptable" on Twitter, and accused the pontiff of being "out of touch with both historical facts and legal basis."
Later on Sunday, Çavusoglu said that, "Religious offices are not places through which hatred and animosity are fueled by unfounded allegations." Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the Pope's opinions "one-sided" and "inappropriate."
In a statement released Monday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry accused the pontiff of appropriating history for "political aims," and overlooking "the tragedies that befell the Turkish and Muslim people who had lost their lives in World War I."
Twenty countries have officially recognized the Armenian genocide, and a ceremony to commemorate the centennial of the massacres will be held April 24 in Yerevan, Armenia's capital.
According to François Mabille, a political scientist at France's National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), the pope's comments are in line with the positions of his immediate predecessors.
'John Paul II or Benedict XVI would never have made such bold remarks.'
Mabille told VICE News that the pontiff's words were taken from a joint statement written in 2000 by Pope John Paul II and Karekin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
"The real difference between 2001 and 2015 is that the comments were spoken on a Sunday, in St Peter's Basilica," Mabille said, noting that the pontiff's comments broke with the diplomatic tradition of the Vatican. "John Paul II or Benedict XVI would never have made such bold remarks."
The pope's position is "moral, not geopolitical," Mabille said. "He wants to raise awareness of the current massacres of Christians in the Middle East, and, in order to do that, he wants to show there is a historical precedent for these massacres."
According to Mabille, the diplomatic crisis with Turkey also reflects growing tension within the Vatican between Pope Francis and the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church's administrative arm. It's possible, he explained, that the pope could be trying to institute a more proactive brand of diplomacy aimed at preventing crises rather than condemning them in hindsight.
"A diplomatic reform is currently underway in the Vatican," he said. "Monsignor Gallagher, the secretary for relations with the states, has said, for example, that he would like to openan office for [international] mediation."
The bigger question, Mabille said, is whether or not the Vatican knew that Pope Francis would be using the G-word. If not, it could be an indication that the pontiff is trying to break "from the traditionally moderate form of diplomacy."
But despite the pope's rebellious streak, the Roman Curia still retains authority over many diplomatic matters. In 2014, the pope declined to meet the Dalai Lama during the Tibetan leader's visit to Rome, citing the "delicate situation" with China.
The Vatican's apparent refusal to confirm the nomination of an openly gay French ambassador also bears the stamp of the Roman Curia, Mabille said. The pope's personal views on homosexuality are widely considered more tolerant than any other pontiff before him.
For Mabille, the Pope's remarks Sunday mark the growing distance between the leader of the Catholic Church and its institutions. "The Pope is trying to win public support to override the Curia," he said.
Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter: @MatthieuJublin
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