Armenians Mark Centennial of Genocide Still Disputed by Turkey

Having experienced genocide, Jews should be the first to recognize it, says MK Zehava Galon at Jerusalem ceremony.

AFP

Members of the Israeli and global Armenian community on Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide, in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of soldiers of the Ottoman Empire.

"For too many years, recognition of the Armenian genocide has been a tool in the hands of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which chooses to sacrifice the values of memory, recognition and commemoration of the Armenian ethnic cleansing on the altar of narrow interests," said MK Zehava Galon at a memorial ceremony in the Armenian Cathedral in Jerusalem's Old City.

"It is precisely the Jewish nation, which has known genocide, which knows the meaning of genocide denial and is still fighting against it today, that bears the moral responsibility to show sensitivity to the disasters of other nations and not to deny them," the Meretz leader added.

Dozens of members of the Armenian community in Israel took part in the commemoration in Jerusalem, along with Israeli Jews and refugees from the Sudanese region of Darfur. Hundreds of others waited outside the church, where posters bearing photographs from the genocide were hanging.

"Denial of murders is a crime. Turkey guilty of Armenian genocide," read one. "Armenians demand justice" read another.

After the two-hour mass, Armenian priests laid wreaths at the genocide monument in front of the cathedral.

The annual commemorations mark the day when the mass killings started with the rounding up of some 250 Armenian intellectuals. An estimated 1.5 million died in subsequent massacres, deportations and forced marches that began in 1915 as Ottoman officials worried that the Christian Armenians would side with Russia, its enemy in World War I.

Turkey denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest. On the eve of the centennial, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that his nation's ancestors never committed genocide.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and other dignitaries assembled Friday morning at the Tsitsernakaberd memorial complex in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Two Israeli Knesset members were present at the commemoration ceremony.

Each leader walked along the memorial with a single yellow rose and put it into the center of a wreath resembling a forget-me-not, a flower chosen as the symbol of the commemoration.

"We will never forget the tragedy that your people went through," Hollande said.

France is home to a sizeable Armenian community. Among the French Armenians at Yerevan was 90-year old singer Charles Aznavour, who was born in Paris to a family of massacre survivors.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used his speech to warn of the dangers of nationalism as well as "Russophobia" in a clear dig at the West-leaning government in Ukraine.

For many Armenians, the massacre anniversary is not only a moment of grief but also a reminder of the resilience of the nation.

"We feel a big pain today, historic pain but at the same time we feel a big historic strength," Nadezhda Antonyan, a teacher from Yerevan said on the sidelines of the ceremony. "We should not only survive but we must live, be strong and build our statehood."

Earlier this month, Turkey recalled its ambassadors to Vienna and the Vatican after Austria and Pope Francis described the killings as genocide. The European Parliament has also triggered Turkey's ire by passing a non-binding resolution to commemorate "the centenary of the Armenian genocide."

Armenian President Serge Sarkisian expressed hope that recent steps to recognize the massacre as genocide will help "dispel the darkness of 100 years of denial."

Commemorations were also held in Beirut, home to an estimated 150,000 Armenians, Tehran, and Berlin, drawing tens of thousands of Armenians and local supporters.

In Berlin, German President Joachim Gauck described the killings as genocide at a nondenominational service organized by Germany's main churches — marking a shift in the country's stance after officials previously avoided the term.

In Syria a square in the capital Damascus was renamed Armenian Genocide Victims' Square.