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Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day and the President's New Initiative

Nina Shea

Yesterday, at a commemorative event at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington, President Obama announced a new initiative the creation of a committee to be named the “Atrocities Prevention Board.” This group is supposed to build on the president’s 2011 directive to prevent and stop genocide and other mass atrocities.

As Mark noted below, today, Obama’s resolve will be put to an immediate test, because it’s Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Will the president or his new committee dare to speak up? This is the fourth chance Obama has had as president to acknowledge this other holocaust. As a presidential candidate, he excoriated the Bush administration for failing to speak up about the Armenian genocide, yet his administration has also remained silent.

Some 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have been slaughtered in Turkey as Ottoman rule collapsed between 1915 and 1923. About 750,000 Arameans or Assyrians and 350,000 Pontic Greeks are also thought to have perished during this period. (For an unforgettable account of the ordeal of this last group, whose story is not generally well known, read Thea Halo’s Not Even My Name.) These Christian populations were victimized under a radically secular movement of “Young Turks” that had risen up and set in motion a “Turkification” program which shaped in no small part Atatürk’s government and is reflected in some of Turkey’s current laws and policies.

Today, Christians, who have been reduced to a mere 0.15 percent of Turkey’s population, are treated as a fifth column by the state, thwarted in their ability to preserve their churches. All of Turkey’s Christian traditions still face tight restrictions: rules against the possession of churches, bans against seminaries to train new clergy, and prohibitions from wearing religious garb in public. And while the government recently gave back a Greek Orthodox orphanage (though there are no longer orphans to reside there), and allowed liturgies to be carried out once a year in a few long-confiscated churches, last year it also oversaw the strategic continuation of oppressive patterns: the state confiscation of part of a 1,600-year-old Syriac monastery and the conversion of the Nicean Saint Sophia church, where the first Christian Ecumenical Council met in 325, into a mosque.

After ten years in power, the Islamist AKP government has failed to rescind the onerous regulations that are contributing to take a toll on the country’s 2,000-year-old Christian church. Not only has Turkey never acknowledged the genocide of a hundred years ago, it still criminally punishes those who even try to raise it.

The late Armenian editor Hrant Dink was one example. Dink’s writings criticizing Turkey’s treatment of its Christians and other minorities brought him a conviction under Article 301 of the criminal code for “insulting Turkishness.” Also, his widow told me, Dink received over 6,000 death threats before being murdered in 2007. Last January, most of the defendants in the murder trial were acquitted, and many in the international human-rights community concluding that the court’s failure to find a broader plot defied the evidence.

These facts, and others, led the congressionally established U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to issue last month a recommendation to the Obama administration to designate Turkey as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act. Revealingly, the three commissioners appointed by President Obama all voted against this non-binding recommendation. Furthermore, a political appointee in the State Department “reached out” to influence another member of the “independent” Commission to change his vote, though it came too late. (Since the Uscirf vote stirred some controversy, it bears noting that the Commission’s General Counsel issued a legal opinion upholding the vote for the CPC recommendation. It found: “In the absence of a quorum, the Commission cannot revise the previously-agreed upon schedule for submitting comments and/or dissents and cannot re-open the previously-adopted country designation for Turkey.”)

At Monday’s Holocaust Museum ceremony, President Obama uttered fine words about a noble goal preventing genocide. Michael Abramowitz, director of the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, responded that the steps Obama outlined “are potentially and I stress the word potentially very important.” He is right to be cautious. This cause is too critical to be exploited as a campaign tactic. The president must be willing to take action on the hard cases, including Turkey.

Instead of embittered words and acts of denial which include threatening other countries whose legislatures and parliaments wish to recognize the Armenian genocide Turkey, an emerging leader in the Muslim world, needs to face up to the horrors that were unleashed a century ago and offer apologies. President Obama should take the lead in encouraging Ankara to cooperate in an open, impartial investigation into what exactly occurred during this period, not least because those historical events cast a shadow over Turkey’s religious minorities even now. Today would be a good day to start.

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