In a mass at St Peter’s Cathedral to mark the centenary of massacres attended by Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, the Pope called the massacre of the Armenians between 1915 and 1917 “the first genocide of the 20th century”.
This was carefully worded, quoting a statement made in 2001 by Pope John Paul II and the Armenian Patriarch.
While the Pope did not use his own words, it was the first time the term "genocide" has been pronounced in connection with Armenia in Saint Peter's.
Gaidz Minassian, a political scientist at the University of Paris, welcomed the statement Sunday.
“It’s very important, not just on a symbolic or moral level, it’s a political act,” he told RFI.
For Armenians “it’s a psychological victory” and shows there is an international consensus that Turkey must recognise the concept of the genocide.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million people were killed between 1915 and 1917 and have pushed for the massacres to be recognised as genocide.
Turkey says 300,000-500,000 Armenians died, along with the same number of Turks, in an Armenian uprising against the Ottoman rulers.
The Pope described the "immense and senseless slaughter" of the Armenians and said there was a duty to "honour their memory, for whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester".
Minassian says the comments will help Turkish citizens “to do the right thing” in pushing their government to recognise the genocide, which he calls “an act of freedom to show people that history belongs to them and not to the state.”
Pope Francis had been under pressure to use the term "genocide" publicly, despite a risk of alienating Turkey, which is seen as an important ally in the fight against radical Islam.
But historian Samim Akgonul says Turkey needs the West, more than the West needs it.
“Turkey is an important ally and always has been, during the Cold War, the two Gulf Wars, and today the Middle East issues,” he told RFI. “On the other hand, Turkey is very isolated.”
The Pope’s comments were widely reported in Turkey.
Akgonul says this is not surprising, as using the word genocide in connection with Armenians is no longer taboo, as it used to be.
“Twenty years ago, the word could not be pronounced,” he told RFI. Today there are conferences on the issue, and even a commemoration of the centenary planned on Istanbul's Taksim Square on 24 April.
Last year, for the first time, then Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered condolences to the descendants of the Armenians who died in 1915.
A historian at the University of Strasbourg who has been involved in the movement to get Turkey to recognise the genocide, Akgonul sees public opinion changing gradually but steadily.
“We are in an era where it is difficult to construct one, single official history,” he said. “Today people are informed from everywhere … so it is difficult to construct a dogma on historical facts. The younger generation, especially, is aware that in the history of Turkey and its nation-building, there have been tragedies.”
He predicts that that Turkey will change.
“I think that in one decade, Turkey will officially take steps to repair this historical trauma,” he said.