Armenia Honors Its Dead as Germany Defies Turkey on Genocide

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Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan
A woman with two boys visit the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. Photographer: Karen Minasyan/AFP via Getty Images

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan declared that “nothing is forgotten” at a ceremony to mark the centenary of the slaughter of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, while Germany defied Turkey’s objections to join other states for the first time in describing the killings as genocide.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Francois Hollande were the most prominent world leaders to attend Friday’s commemoration in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Turkish European Union Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir became his government’s first representative to attend a mass at the Armenian church in Istanbul for the victims of the 1915 killings and deportations. Turkey denies there was a genocide, while acknowledging atrocities occurred.

“Even 100 years later, we remember,” Sargsyan said in a speech challenging Turkish denials after he and representatives of 60 countries placed yellow roses in the center of a large forget-me-not wreath at Armenia’s genocide memorial. Russia mourns “one of the most terrible tragedies in the history of mankind,” Putin told the gathering.

The centenary of the World War I killings is being marked amid unprecedented international recognition that what took place was genocide. Pope Francis and the European Parliament last week called on Turkey to acknowledge the crime, while a visit to Armenia this month of U.S reality-TV star Kim Kardashian and her rapper husband Kanye West brought global media attention to the issue.

German Recognition

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition presented a parliamentary resolution on Friday that called the killings a genocide. “We have to understand that the denial of this genocide has a special role for Turkey’s national identity,” Norbert Roettgen, who heads the lower house’s foreign affairs committee, said in a speech to parliament. “We can’t condone that with silence. Even 100 years later isn’t too late. This is overdue.”

Germany, Turkey’s largest trading partner in the European Union, introduced the measure a day after President Joachim Gauck said the killings were an example of “the genocides that left such a terrible mark on the 20th century.” The parliament in Austria, Ottoman Turkey’s ally with Germany in World War I, labeled the massacres as genocide on Tuesday, prompting Turkey to recall its ambassador.

Gallipoli Campaign

U.S. President Barack Obama, who was represented in Yerevan by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, issued a statement that didn’t characterize the “mass atrocity” as genocide to avoid offending Turkey, while calling for “a full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts.” Obama made a pre-election pledge in 2008 that “as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide,” though he has avoided doing so.

Turkey is “respectful of the pain experienced by our Armenian brothers,” Bozkir told journalists in Istanbul. “We are not opposed to commemoration of these painful events as witnesses.”

In a letter expressing condolences sent to the Armenian Patriarchate, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “I announce once again that we know about the sad events that the Armenian society went through in the past and that I genuinely share your sorrow.”

Turkey hosts events Friday to mark the 1915 Gallipoli campaign after Erdogan changed the date of the ceremony, which members of the British royal family and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will attend, to clash with the one in Yerevan. Turkey “can never accept such a sin, such guilt,” Erdogan said last week in reference to the genocide.

The United Nations defines the crime of genocide in a 1948 convention as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The dispute is at the core of tensions between Armenia and Turkey, who have no diplomatic ties and face each other across a closed border. Turkey rejects the death toll and argues that the killings that took place were the consequence of war after some Armenians joined Russian troops fighting the Ottomans.

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