Statements by the leader of the Catholic Church, which accounts for more than 1 billion followers in a world of 7 billion people, have a great impact on the opinion and beliefs of his followers.
On Sunday, April 12, 2015, Pope Francis marked the 100th anniversary of the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. The Catholic Pontiff stated, unashamedly, that the massacre of the Armenians was “the first genocide of the 20th century” and urged the international community to recognise it as such. “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it,” he further said.
While agreeing with the Pontiff about the need to reveal evil in all its manifestations, the core statement of the Pope cannot go unchallenged. The head of the Catholic Church was either misinformed by his advisors or deliberately wanted to twist facts and thereby engage in historical revisionism that involves either the legitimate scholastic re-examination of existing knowledge about a historical event, or the illegitimate distortion of the historical record. Positions of authority, whether religious or otherwise, are not places where unfounded claims should be made.
The first genocide of the 20th century was committed in 1904 in Namibia against Namibians and not in Armenia. The Armenian genocide took place in 1915. Distorting this historical fact is disingenuous and puts the Vatican in bad light.
However, this distortion is not an isolated event, and it confirms the role of the church in influencing the colonisation of Africa. Therefore, the statement by the Holy See cannot be accepted. It is not only controversial in every aspect, but it is based on prejudice, and distorts history and refuses to acknowledge the genocide against Namibians.
The affinity shared by the Catholic Church with Armenia is understandable given the fact that Christianity began to spread in Armenia soon after Jesus’ crucifixion, due to the efforts of two of his apostles, St Thaddeus and St Bartholomew. It is also a recorded historical fact that in the early 4th century, the year 301 to be exact, the Kingdom of Armenia became the first state to adopt Christianity as a state religion. The massacre of Armenians is indeed close to the Vatican’s heart, given the above facts. These historical facts should not, however, be used to downplay other historical facts.
The history of colonisation is inextricably bound up with the history of religion. For many centuries, Africans have been cajoled and indoctrinated by the church for specific purposes – glorifying the supremacy of the white race.
Toyin Falola once asserted that there were some missionaries who believed that “the agenda of colonialism in Africa was similar to that of Christianity”, primarily to distort, indoctrinate and subjugate Africans. This is not the first time that attempts are being made to revise the history of the African people.
Historical revisionists, like the Catholic Church, understand Plato’s dictum that, “those who tell the stories also hold the power”. They have the collective task to influence a nation’s cultural development, the full significance of which is to redefine a nation’s status; shaping of national identity, cultures, and memories.
Through the study of history, individuals are imbued with a particular identity. By revising history, therefore, one has the ability to specifically craft that ideological identity. Church leaders and historians capitalise on the fact that they are credited as people who single-mindedly pursue the truth, and present their pseudo-history as the true gospel.
As a people whose forefathers and foremothers perished in the true first genocide in the 20th century in 1904, we sympathise with all other victims of genocide elsewhere in the world, including Armenians. We understand their pain because we lived and continue to live in that pain. However, for someone of the stature of church leader to attempt to belittle our pain, is utterly provocative and unacceptable.
This time around, the Vatican and church fraternity should not be let off the hook easily. They cannot continue practising double standards on fundamental human rights issues. The Vatican should be made to treat and recognize all victims of genocide equally, irrespective of their skin colour. In fact, going by the numbers of Africans who worship under the leadership of the Pope, the Vatican should have known better.
The Holy See should lead from the front in trying to rectify the historic injustices perpetrated against Africans. The venom he spewed when condemning the genocide against Armenians should have the same decibels when he finally corrects the distorted historical facts.
It is now incumbent upon our diplomatic missions, government and church leaders, and the population at large to petition the Holy See to correct the misinformation he made during a Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, April 12, 2015. We too deserve recognition. The genocide of our people cannot be swept under some Christian carpet. Not now, not ever.
*Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California