In a message to Armenians on the centennial of the mass deportations and massacres during World War I, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Turkey recognizes “the sorrowful events” of a century ago.
In a message read by a senior cleric at a packed requiem Mass at Istanbul’s Holy Mother of God Church, Erdogan said, “I sincerely share your pain.”
It fell far short of the apology that Armenians have demanded, but the setting – a memorial service for those who died in the mass expulsions that began in 1915 – gave it far more significance than the words alone.
The service was historic – the first such Mass on the Armenian remembrance day – and among those attending was Volkan Bozkır, Turkey’s European Union affairs minister. It came one day after the Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia canonized en masse the “martyrs” killed in the expulsions.
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Records of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the biggest Armenian church, show 1.9 million members before the slaughter. Today, according to Erdogan, there are only 40,000 permanent residents of Armenian descent in Turkey and 40,000 temporary workers from Armenia. Historians estimate as many as 1.5 million people died in the two years after the Armenians were ordered out of what is now Turkey to other parts of the Ottoman Empire.
Despite a campaign by Armenian diaspora groups, the government of Armenia, and a slowly growing list of other countries, Erdogan did not use the term “genocide” to describe the mass killings, saying it is up to historians to determine what happened.
Nor did Archbishop Aram Atesyan, the deputy patriarch, who referred to what took place with the Armenian words “Meds Yeghern,” or “Great Catastrophe,” in his sermon. He said one of the most agonizing aspects of the losses of a century ago is that “the pain and the wound of 1915 . . . is still mentioned so much a century later.”
He cautioned Armenians that seeking revenge against Turkey is pointless and will doom efforts to have normal relations between the two nations.
But he also warned that “claiming on the one hand that you are seeking the goodwill of humanity and while on the other hand using denial as an approach is not acceptable” – words that might be taken as an indirect criticism of the Turkish government.
The church service commemorated the 100th anniversary of the April 24, 1915, roundup of Armenian intellectuals in what was then Constantinople, which began a months-long expulsion campaign.
Later, more than 1,000 Armenians from around the world and Turkish human rights supporters gathered near Taksim Square in central Istanbul for an hour-long event that began at the time of the first deportations – 7 p.m.
In Armenia on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Francois Hollande were the most prominent foreign guests at the Armenian genocide memorial in Yerevan, the capital. “We will never forget the tragedy that your people went through,” Hollande said.
Putin used the occasion to warn about the dangers of nationalism and “Russophobia,” a reference to Western powers slapping economic sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea.
Putin’s decision on Thursday to label the Armenian deportations as genocide, following on the heels of Germany, Austria and the European Parliament, provoked a stinging response from Turkey on Friday.
“Taking into account the mass atrocities and deportations in the Caucasus, in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe committed by Russia for a century . . . as well as inhuman practices, especially against Turkish and Muslim peoples in Russia’s own history, we consider that Russia is best suited to know exactly what ‘genocide’ and its legal dimensions are,” the Foreign Ministry said.
Yalcin Akdogan, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, said Putin should have made a statement about contemporary Syria, where Turkey opposes the Russia-backed government of President Bashar Assad and blames it for tens of thousands of deaths in that country’s civil war.
One reason for the anger is historical. Czarist Russia supported ethnic Armenian insurgents who revolted in 1915 against the Ottomans and who in turn supported Russia’s World War I goal of seizing Turkish territory. Turkish historians cite that conflict as a key reason the Ottoman government decided to deport the Armenian population.
Turkey also criticized President Barack Obama’s latest statement on Armenia as “disconnected from reality” and “one-sided,” though Obama had declined to use the word “genocide,” angering Armenian groups in the United States.
In his message this year, Obama, like every president before him, avoided using the term “genocide,” in large part to avoid straining ties with Turkey, a key security partner in the Middle East and beyond. But he welcomed the views of Pope Francis, who said the Armenian slaughter was “widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century.”
And Obama made a pointed, though indirect, reference to genocide by praising Raphael Lemkin as a human rights champion, “who helped to bring about the first United Nations human rights treaty.”
Lemkin, a Jewish jurist who escaped Nazi Germany, coined the term “genocide” after researching the mass killings of Armenians in 1915-1917. The treaty was the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
At the evening rally, diaspora members had their say, among them Heghnar Watenpaugh, an associate professor of art history at the University of California, Davis. Speaking told the crowd she was alive thanks to a great-grandmother who climbed a mountain in 1914 – Musa Dagh – along with other Armenians. They put an SOS banner on the mountainside and were saved after 40 days by a foreign naval ship. The incident was immortalized by Austrian author Franz Werfel in “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.”
Watenpaugh was highly skeptical of Erdogan’s letter and other gestures.
“If these are baby steps, it could have a positive aspect, or it could be a subtler form of denial,” she told McClatchy. But she said condolences were not sufficient because “this is a state that murdered its own citizens.”
Heghnar Watenpaugh shared with McClatchy Newspapers the text she spoke from Friday:
We are here today to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, one of humanity's darkest events. But for Armenians all over the world, it is also a time when we celebrate our survival, and our enormous resilience.
I am here today because one hundred years ago my great-grandmother climbed a mountain. She was living in Khidir Beg village, on Musa Dagi, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The Ottoman army had forcefully conscripted her husband, never to return. Soon after, when the state issued a deportation order for the village, the people of Khidir Beg held a meeting to decide how to respond. Some of the villagers chose to obey the order and went on what turned out to be a death march that few survived.
But my great-grandmother Varter, a young mother of three, and a few other stubborn villagers defied the order. They scaled their mountain, and for forty days the Armenians of Musa Dagi fought off the Ottoman Army until their supplies ran out and a passing allied battleship miraculously rescued them.
Wherever the Armenian survivors like my ancestors went, in each refugee camp, in every town, from Beirut to California, they recreated their village. They planted mulberry trees, pomegranate trees, and grape vines, gathering in their shade.
And that is why I am here today: To honor those who were killed, those who resisted, and those who survived. I stand proudly with you here today to speak my great-grandparents' names, Sarkis Zeitlian and Varter Kojanian, in Armenian, our beautiful language that survives against all odds. I speak their names in the heart of this great city: a city where Armenians thought, wrote, created, and lived for centuries before the Genocide; a city where now a small but dignified and vibrant Armenian community continues to teach its children our language and our traditions.
As I speak Armenian in the heart of Istanbul on this hallowed day, I can hear the sounds of the past. If you listen carefully, the past is not silent. It is as clear as the ringing of a church bell on a Sunday morning.
There are Armenian churches all over this beautiful country. Some of them are now in ruins, some of them are mosques, sports clubs, stables, and barns. Yet they maintain their dignity, and they astonish us with their beauty. They, too, are survivors. They could never be museum exhibitions.
For if you listen carefully you can hear the distant echo of their bells. When the bells ring at the 1001 Churches of Ani, the capital of our ancient kings, all the other churches respond: from my ancestors' little village church, to the Church of the Holy Cross on Aghtamar, to Surp Giragos reborn in Diyarbekir. And the voices of our ancestors can be heard from the mountains of Sasun, to the plains of Mush, amidst the pine trees of Zeytun, and even above the burning sands of Der Zor.
They are calling for justice. We are calling for justice. We are here today with Armenians from around the world and citizens of many nationalities who have traveled to stand against denial. We are here today with citizens of Turkey who are standing with us in our quest for redress and restitution.
I am here today with my children, Arda Zabel and Aram David, because I want them to embrace the land of their ancestors. I want for them a world in which we can stand together with dignity, equality and justice for all the people of this land, and for all people around the world.
Friends, let's begin again, and like my great-grandmother, let's climb our mountain together. Let us hear the bells ringing, urging us on. Let us work together for justice.