UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonReuters

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday said Ban considers the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks 100 years ago "atrocity crimes" but is not supporting Pope Francis' description of the killings as "the first genocide of the 20th century".

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric was quoted by The Associated Press (AP) as telling 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 added that 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, according to AP.

"The UN has sought to strengthen the capacity of the international community to prevent such atrocity crimes from ever occurring," Dujarric said.

In his comments, the Pope had named the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and Stalinism as the three greatest human tragedies to occur during the last century.

"In the past century, our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies," Francis stated, at the beginning of a Mass in the Armenian Catholic rite held at the Vatican. 

"The first, which is widely considered 'the first genocide of the 20th century', struck your own Armenian people," he said, in comments he would have been aware would not go down well in Turkey, where authorities deny the scale of the massacre which took place between 1915-1917.

But the Pope called categorically for an end to such denial.

"Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it," he said. 

Turkey was infuriated by the comments, summoning the Vatican's ambassador to Ankara to express its "disappointment" and saying the Pope's speech had caused "a problem of trust" between the two states.