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 Bozkr, 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.”
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 on Thursday labeled 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.
Turkey also criticized President 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.”