(CNSNews.com) – Dozens of U.S. lawmakers are calling on President Obama to honor a campaign promise to formally recognize the mass killings of Armenian Christians in Ottoman Turkey a century ago as a “genocide.”
Turkey, a NATO ally with an Islamist-leaning government, is highly sensitive about the issue, and previous congressional initiatives have triggered a strong response from Ankara, including the withdrawal of its ambassador from Washington.
This year’s commemoration, later this month, marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the atrocities. Up to 1.5 million orthodox Christian Armenians, along with Assyrians, Greeks and other Christians, were killed in 1915 and the years following, as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated.
Fifteen senators have signed a bipartisan letter urging Obama to attend the main memorial event, in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on April 24, “to send a powerful message that the United States recognizes the magnitude and full meaning of the Armenian Genocide.”
The letter noted that the U.S. Congress passed its first resolution on the subject as long ago as 1916.
“While the United States Congress has a long history of support for victims and the memory of the Armenian Genocide, the Administration has not formally recognized the atrocities that were perpetrated against the Armenians as ‘genocide,’” the senators wrote.
When running for president, then-Sen. Obama said in a Jan. 2008 campaign statement that “the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable.”
“[A]s president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide,” the candidate pledged.
“A clear recognition of the Armenian Genocide, particularly in this centennial year, would affirm that the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence,” it stated.
“A principled presidential statement clearly citing the Armenian Genocide would help strengthen condemnations of the past, and recognize the important relationship the United States shares with Armenia today.”
Meanwhile a House resolution introduced last month urges the president to “work toward equitable, constructive, stable, and durable Armenian-Turkish relations based upon the Republic of Turkey’s full acknowledgment of the facts and ongoing consequences of the Armenian Genocide; and a fair, just, and comprehensive international resolution of this crime against humanity.”
The measure, sponsored by Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and co-sponsored by 41 Democrats and eight Republicans, was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 18.
‘A matter of historical debate’
Past congressional initiatives relating to the issue have threatened to place strains on U.S.-Turkish relations.
In 2010, for instance, after the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed – by a single vote – a non-binding resolution condemning the atrocities, Turkey recalled its ambassador in protest, and an annual American-Turkish Council conference was delayed by several months.
Three years earlier, when the same committee marked up an Armenian Genocide bill, Turkey threatened to retaliate by restricting U.S. use of the Incirlik air base in south-east Turkey, an important transit hub, for Iraq-related operations.
The Bush administration then warned the resolution would jeopardize relations with an important ally and put at risk supply lines to U.S. troops in Iraq, and it did not in the end go to the House floor for a vote.
(A related Senate bill that same year counted among its 33 co-sponsors Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Joe Biden, but not Obama.)
In 2012 then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replied cautiously when asked by a State Department employee during a town hall meeting why the administration does not recognize the Armenian atrocities as a genocide.
“I think it’s fair to say that this has always been viewed, and I think properly so, as a matter of historical debate and conclusions rather than political,” Clinton said. “And I think that is the right posture for the United States government to be in, because whatever the terrible event might be or the high emotions that it represents, to try to use government power to resolve historical issues, I think, opens a door that is a very dangerous one to go through.”
Turkey’s official stance is that genocide did not take place. It maintains instead that between 250,000 and 500,000 Armenians, and at least the same number of Muslims, died in civil strife, famine and war-related deaths over the period in question.
The Association of Genocide Scholars in a unanimous 1997 resolution reaffirmed “that the mass murder of over a million Armenians in Turkey in 1915 is a case of genocide which conforms to the statutes of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.” The resolution went on to condemn denial of the Armenian Genocide by the Turkish government and its supporters.
The association, since renamed the International Association of Genocide Scholars, is holding a conference in July in Yerevan to mark the centenary of an event which it says “is sometimes considered as the first genocide of the 20th century and in many ways served as a template for subsequent genocidal crimes.”
–One key location during the atrocities a century ago was Deir al-Zour (aka Deir ez-Zour, Deir Ezzor) in present-day Syria, which historians say was a destination for hundreds of thousands of Armenian and Assyrian Christians uprooted by the Turks and forced to march across the desert, in most cases to their deaths.
In 1991 a genocide memorial was established in the compound of the Holy Martyr Church in the town, and each year Armenian pilgrims would visit the site on April 24.
Deir al-Zour has become a hotbed in the Syrian civil war, and last fall jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) were reported to have blown up the church.