Joined: 25 Oct 2003
| Posted: Thu Nov 30, 2006 12:25 pm Post subject: Refusal to acknowledge Armenian genocide
BY MATTHEW MCALLESTER
Newsday Staff Correspondent
November 29, 2006, 3:13 PM EST
Refusal to acknowledge Armenian genocide
For the Turkish state, and many Turks, to admit their forebears committed genocide is something they will not even consider
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Mesrob II, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul and all
Turkey, was silent for a second.
He had just been asked by a reporter if he acknowledged that the Armenian
"Uhhhh," he said, "I acknowledge that people were killed." He was silent
again. "Many people lost their lives."
More uneasy silence followed.
This from a man whose paternal grandfather was the only one of six ethnic
Armenian brothers to make it back to Istanbul after being, as he put it,
"deported to the Syrian desert" in 1915. They were among more than a million
ethnic Armenians who suffered a similar fate at the hands of Ottoman Turks:
They were rounded up, deported to concentration camps and, for the most
"So severe has been the treatment that careful estimates place the number of
survivors at only 15 percent of those originally deported," the U.S. consul
in Aleppo wrote to the State Department in 1915 in a dispatch quoted in a
recent article in The New Yorker magazine. "On this basis the number
surviving even this far being less than 150,000 . there seems to have been
about 1,000,000 persons lost up to this date."
What Mesrob II, who will meet the visiting Pope Benedict XVI today in
Istanbul, could not or would not say was that the Turks of the then-Ottoman
Empire committed genocide against the Armenians who lived in modern-day
Turkey. For the Turkish state, and many Turks, to admit their forebears
committed genocide is something they will not even consider, and it makes
many Turks extremely angry even to suggest the genocide happened.
Authors and journalists, including Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk,
have been prosecuted for suggesting it took place. But for the 65,000 ethnic
Armenians -- mostly Orthodox Christians -- who live in this country of 70
million Muslims, to speak publicly of genocide would not be just brave, but
"Probably the state wouldn't do anything directly except make some
statement" if Mesrob was to say there had been a genocide, said Murat Belge,
one of Pamuk's publishers and an organizer of an unprecedented conference
last year in Istanbul about the genocide.
"Very likely he would be assassinated by some fascists," continued Belge,
who was himself prosecuted under a controversial law last year for writing
critical articles about a court's ban on the conference. "The Patriarchate
would be burned down. A lot of Armenians would be shot in their daily
Mesrob, in an interview at the well-guarded Armenian Patriarchate in
Istanbul, said many different peoples, governments, political parties and
even his own Armenian Patriarchate should share the blame for what happened
in 1915. He said he believed the best way for Turks and Armenians to
reconcile is for Turkey to open its border with Armenia and for the two
countries to encourage exchange visits and other ways of generating mutual
"It's not a matter of being silent about the issue," he said. "It's a matter
of how can you make friends with someone. Do you from the first moment
simply confront the person?"
If it's not silence, then it's a pragmatic sort of self-censorship. Growing
up, Mesrob's father never talked to him about what happened to the previous
generation, he said. "I think they didn't want us to be at odds with our
That parenting method continues today among the ethnic Armenians in Turkey,
Mesrob said. "We don't tell our children about historical problems so they
won't face problems."
The Turkish government's position on the events of 1915 is that the people
who died in the region at the time died as a result of inter-ethnic
fighting, disease and hardships caused by war.
More than 20 countries have officially recognized the genocide, as have a
majority of the 50 states in the United States, including New York. It is
long-standing State Department policy not to refer to the events of 1915 as
genocide; many critics of this policy see it as a politically expedient way
of avoiding alienating a crucial American ally.
Most Western historians agree the genocide happened. Last year, the
International Association of Genocide Scholars wrote to Turkey's prime
minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about it, concluding: "We believe that it is
clearly in the interest of the Turkish people and their future as a proud
and equal participant in international, democratic discourse to acknowledge
the responsibility of a previous government for the genocide of the Armenian
people, just as the German government and people have done in the case of
Such an acknowledgement will not come easily or quickly -- if at all.
"Until the 1980s there was a total loss of memory," said a Turkish political
powerbroker who requested anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity.
"Nobody talked about this. It was the policy of the omnipotent state not to
talk about anything negative."
Last year's conference in Istanbul and a growing concern about the issue
within Europe -- a recent French law makes it a crime to deny the genocide
happened -- have moved Turkey slightly closer to coming to terms with its
"The skeletons are there and they have not vanished," the Turkish
powerbroker said. "Now we are going to open the cupboard."
If Turkey is to gain entry to the European Union, it likely will have to
acknowledge its actions in 1915 -- although Turkey accepting the word
"genocide" could forever remain a sticking point.
Egemen Bagis, foreign policy adviser to Erdogan, said in an interview that
last year Erdogan made an offer to the Armenian president: Both countries
would establish an independent investigative commission and open up all
countries' archives in order to establish what happened.
"No other politician in Turkey's history has ever said he is ready to face
his own history," Bagis said.
But when asked if he recognized that a genocide took place, Bagis responded
quickly: "I don't."