US President Barack Obama marked Armenian Remembrance Day at the weekend, describing the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians 96 years ago as “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century”, although he stopped short of using the term genocide.
“I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed,” Obama wrote in a statement Saturday (April 23rd). “It is in all of our interest to see the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts.”
His words drew strong criticism from Turkey, with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu saying the statement “is one-sided and reads history from a single perspective”.
“It is saddening that each year this issue pops up and casts a shadow on our relations with the United States. Lots of pain was endured in the Ottoman territories during the break-up of the empire,” Istanbul-based daily Hurriyet quoted him as adding. “We would have expected Mr. Obama to also remember the sufferings of Turks back in those days.”
As many as 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were massacred in 1915 and 1916 in what many historians regard as the first genocide of the 20th century. Ankara rejects that claim, however, arguing that the numbers have been exaggerated, and that the killings took place amid a general climate of civil war in which Turks also died.
The issue remains extremely sensitive, and for years public debate within Turkey was unheard of. Recently, however, that has started to change. Small gatherings were held in six cities around the country on Sunday, commemorating Armenian intellectuals and community leaders who were rounded up in Istanbul by the Ottoman authorities on April 24th, 1915. Most were deported to Central Anatolia, where they perished.
Many say that action marked the start of a much larger purge, although Turkey has long insisted there was no systematic plan for exterminating Armenians.
Praising Ankara and Yerevan for the efforts they have been making in recent years to improve their ties, Obama urged them on Saturday to move forward along that path.
“I salute the Turks who saved Armenians in 1915 and am encouraged by the dialogue among Turks and Armenians, and within Turkey itself, regarding this painful history,” he said. “Together, the Turkish and Armenian people will be stronger as they acknowledge their common history and recognise their common humanity.”
Obama also praised the Armenians for their contributions around the world since the tragic events in Turkey nearly a century ago, viewing them as “a testament to the strength, tenacity and courage of the Armenian people”.
The Armenian diaspora in the United States was also unhappy with the president’s statement and criticised him for failing to make good on his pre-election promise to recognise the Armenian genocide.
“The president offered only euphemisms and evasive terminology to describe the murder of over 1.5 million men, women and children — effectively keeping in place the gag rule imposed by the Turkish government on the open and honest discussion of this crime,” the Armenian Assembly of America stated.