(CNSNews.com) – As Turkey’s leaders fume over Pope Francis’ use of the term “genocide” to describe mass killings of Armenian Christians a century ago, the country’s top religious figure invoked the crusades and said the furor would accelerate a controversial scheme to turn Istanbul’s most famous historical church into a mosque.
“The statement that the Catholic world’s spiritual leader delivered three days ago, saying Armenians had been subjected to a genocide, is extremely spectacular,” Mefail Hizli, the mufti of Ankara, said in a written statement, Hurriyet daily reported.
Hizli said the pontiff’s comment “reflected a modern color of the crusader wars launched in these lands for centuries.”
“Frankly, I believe that the pope’s remarks will only accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be re-opened for [Islamic] worship.”
Built in the sixth century – before the founding of Islam – Hagia Sophia served variously as an Orthodox and Catholic cathedral until the 15th century, when the Ottomans began using it as a mosque.
In the 1930s Turkey’s secular government declared the building a museum, but under the Islamist ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party a campaign has grown to return it to a place of Muslim worship. Early his month a Muslim cleric recited a passage from the Qur’an at a high-profile event in the Hagia Sophia. Local media said it was the first time that had occurred in 85 years.
The mufti’s statement is the latest fallout in Turkey over Pope Francis’ description Sunday of the events of 1915-1918 as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu accused the pope of joining an “axis of evil” with Turkish opposition parties, aimed at weakening the ruling AK Party ahead of June 7 legislative elections.
“An axis of evil is being created against us,” Today’s Zaman newspaper quoted Davutoglu as telling a party meeting. “An axis whose entire motivation is to hinder the AK Party is being formed.”
Pointing fingers at the party’s political opponents, he added, “The pope has joined these plots against the AK Party and Turkey.”
In a further dig at the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Davutoglu brought up another controversial historical event, attaching the genocide term to the Spanish Inquisition.
“I am addressing the pope: Those who escaped the genocide carried out by the Catholic world in Spain via the Inquisition found peace and safety in our just system,” he said, adding that Turks “will not let our nation be insulted over history.”
Earlier, Ankara called the pope’s comment “unfounded” and recalled its ambassador from the Vatican in protest.
Turkey is bitterly opposed to growing international acknowledgment that the killings of up to 1.5 million orthodox Christian Armenians as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated during World War I amounted to a deliberate genocide.
A campaign is underway in the U.S. to urge President Obama to honor a campaign pledge and make a public statement to that effect. Next Friday, April 24, marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the atrocities.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is due to travel to Washington in the coming days, for meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry and others designed, according to Turkish media, to influence the wording the administration will use in this year’s April 24 statement.
On Thursday, the pope’s spokesman said the Vatican has taken note of the Turkish criticism, Italy’s La Stampa reported.
Fr. Federico Lombardi told reporters that the pope’s message regarding the mass atrocities was, “let us take stock of history so as to have an appropriate attitude that will allow us to go on ensuring that such acts are not repeated.”
“His message was very clear for those who wanted to embrace it and included a positive reference to his hopes for a reconciliation and dialogue between the Turkish people and the Armenian people,” he said.
“We take stock of any reactions, objections and criticisms from Turkey, but we did not think it was the case to start an argument or to bicker,” Lombardi said. “We take stock of the fact that there were reactions.”
On Wednesday the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling the mass killings of Armenians Christians a century ago “genocide,” and calling on Turkey to end a policy of denial.
While Turkey strongly denies that a genocide occurred, it says strife, disease and famine costs the lives of hundreds of thousands of people over that period, but that killings were not systematic and Christians and Muslims alike were affected.