Pope Francis said Saturday that the world should never forget or minimize the Ottoman-era slaughter of Armenians, and he urged Armenians and Turks to find peace and reconcile with one another.
Francis and the patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, participated in an ecumenical ceremony and prayer for peace at the Republic Square in Yerevan attended by thousands of people.
"A century has just passed from the 'Great Evil' unleashed upon you," the pontiff said. "This immense and senseless slaughter, this tragedy that your people experienced in the flesh, remains impressed in our memory and burns in our hearts. Here I would again state that your sufferings are our own. ... May God bless your future and grant that the people of Armenia and Turkey take up again the path of reconciliation."
Earlier in the day, at the Genocide Memorial and Museum in Yerevan, Francis paid tribute to the 1.5 million Armenians killed in 1915. His remarks came a day after he denounced the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as “genocide.”
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said Saturday that Francis' labeling of the killings was "unfortunate." He said the use of the word "genocide" reflected the papacy's "Crusader mentality," according to comments published by the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
Accent on reconciliation
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi tried to clarify the intentions behind the pope's use of the word "genocide" and insisted the Vatican has good relations with Turkey.
Speaking to reporters in the northwestern city of Gyumri, Lombardi said that the Holy See was not aiming to renew conflict with Turkey by repeating the term, and he stressed that the pope has always called for reconciliation.
Last year in April, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican after Francis used the term "genocide."
Francis placed a wreath at the Armenian memorial Saturday and stood silently in prayer before an eternal flame that overlooks a hillside in Yerevan.
"I pray here, with pain in my heart, that such tragedies will not happen again, that humanity does not forget and knows how to overcome evil with good," the pope wrote in the guest book in Italian. "May God protect the memory of the Armenian people! Memory cannot be stifled or forgotten! Memory is a source of peace and future!"
WATCH: Pope Francis visits Armenian memorial
Later in the day, Francis traveled to Gyumri to preside over the only public Catholic Mass scheduled for his trip.
Francis has frequently denounced the slaughter of Christians by Islamic extremists in the Middle East, saying the indiscriminate attacks against religious minorities is an “ecumenism of blood,” a martyrdom shared by all Christians.
Recently, however, he said he preferred to use the term “martyrdom” over “genocide” when describing the persecution of Christians.
Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1917. Many scholars have viewed the event as the 20th century’s first genocide.
Armenia has long sought international recognition of the event as genocide, while Turkey acknowledges that hundreds of thousands of Armenians died, but has denied that their killings constituted a campaign of genocide.