UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon considers the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks 100 years ago "atrocity crimes," but he isn't supporting Pope Francis' description of the killings as "the first genocide of the 20th century," the U.N. spokesman said Monday.
Turkey denies the killings were genocide and in response to the pope's comments on Sunday Ankara recalled its Vatican ambassador and accused Francis of spreading hatred.
Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as genocide. But Turkey insists the death toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that Ban took note of the pope's comments and is fully aware of "the sensitivities related to the characterization of what happened" in 1915 and the April 24 commemoration of the 100th anniversary of "the tragic events" by Armenia and others around the world.
He said the secretary-general firmly believes that the commemoration and continuing cooperation between Armenians and Turks "with a view to establishing the facts about what happened should strengthen our collective determination to prevent similar atrocity crimes from ever happening in the future."
Dujarric said in response to a question that Ban did not envision an international commission to examine the facts, saying: "There've been discussions with the countries concerned, and communities concerned and I think it's important that those discussions continue."
He sidestepped several questions on whether the secretary-general agreed with the pope's characterization, and whether Francis was right to raise the issue.
"The U.N. has sought to strengthen the capacity of the international community to prevent such atrocity crimes from ever occurring," Dujarric said.
The pope made the pronouncement during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica commemorating the centenary that was attended by Armenian church leaders and President Serge Sarkisian. Francis said it was his duty to honor the memory of the innocent men, women and children who were "senselessly" murdered by Ottoman Turks.
Earlier Monday, the European Union urged Turkey and Armenia to normalize ties.
The two countries signed an agreement in 2009 to open their borders and establish diplomatic relations but it has not been implemented.
EU foreign affairs spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said the EU encourages the countries "to consider additional, meaningful steps that would pave the way toward full reconciliation."