Turkey's Armenians keep heads down after genocide recognition

Paris, France: Members of Turkey's tiny Armenian community have kept a low profile since US President Joe Biden recognized the Armenian genocide, fearing retribution should they openly celebrate the landmark step.

"Discretion has become a part of our daily lives," said an Armenian Turk who, like many others interviewed by AFP, wished to remain anonymous to protect his local business.

Biden on Saturday became the first US president to brush aside Turkish pressure and call the 1915-1917 events a genocide in which "1.5 million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination".

His words caused relief and bittersweet joy in Armenia and among the tiny Caucasus state's vast web of ethnic communities across Europe and the Americas.

Once an integral part of the Ottoman Empire's multifaceted society, only 60,000 ethnic Armenians are still believed to live in modern Turkey, most of them in Istanbul.

Ankara accepts that both Armenians and Turks died in vast numbers while the Ottomans battled tsarist Russia, but denies the existence of a deliberate policy of genocide.

Dozens of angry Turks rallied outside the US consulate in Istanbul on Monday to express outrage at Biden's decision.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it "groundless, unfair" and detrimental to US-Turkish ties.

The Turkish-Armenian businessman said his community faces waves of anti-Armenian sentiments whenever debates resume about the century-old events.

"We were raised since childhood not to speak Armenian on the street. We were even told to call our mothers 'anne' (in Turkish) instead of 'mama'," he said.

"Everyone has differences on every issue but when it comes to the Armenian question, everyone is united in Turkey."

'Hate speech'

Yetvart Danzikyan, editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos -- whose former editor Hrant Dink was gunned down in Istanbul in 2007 -- said the annual commemorations pass in a "climate of tension" in Turkey.

"The climate is shaped by (Turkey's) tough response, which goes as far as to hold Armenians responsible" for what happened, Danzikyan said in a telephone interview.

Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan's powerful press adviser, tweeted on Tuesday that "distorting history further encourages Armenian extremism", pointing to the Turkish diplomats assassinated by Armenian militants in the 1970s and 1980s.

For Agos's Danzikyan, Altun's words and similar comments represent a campaign of psychological pressure and intimidation that make it difficult to speak freely.

"How can you expect a community which has lived under pressure for decades to speak up?" Danzikyan asked.

Selina Dogan, an ethnic Armenian ex-MP from the main opposition CHP party, agreed that her community's silence since Biden's announcement was part of an attempt at self-preservation.

Armenians have remained discreet "to maintain their presence in these lands," said Dogan, who is now a municipal assembly member representing a district on the European side of Istanbul where many Armenians live.

In Turkey, "hate speech is glorified", said Dogan.

Paramaz Mercan, a 50-year-old Armenian who lives in the mostly Kurdish southeastern city of Diyarbakir, said his attempts to relate the way his community felt to the media did not end well.

"On one particular occasion, I expressed a thought and said I wanted to live my own culture, which prompted some to say that I should be deported," he recalled.

How leaders grapple with the Armenian genocide

Turkey furiously rejects the mass killings of Armenians between 1915 and 1917 as genocide, although it does acknowledge many were massacred.

With US President Joe Biden expected to formally recognize it as genocide on Sunday we look at how other countries have handled the painful issue.

Genocide or massacres?

It is estimated that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed during World War I by Ottoman troops or irregulars.

Turkey -- which emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 -- admits that 300,000 Armenians may have died in civil war and famine.

But it denies there was genocide.

Large numbers of Armenians had already been massacred between 1894 and 1896 under Sultan Abdul Hamid II, with some saying as many as 300,000 died.

Turkey says the Armenians collaborated with the Russian enemy during World War I, and that tens of thousands of Turks were killed at their hands.

On April 24, 1915 thousands of Armenians suspected of being hostile to Ottoman rule were rounded up.

The Armenian population of Anatolia and Cilicia was then deported into the Mesopotamian desert "for reasons of internal security".

A large number died on the way or in detention camps. Many were shot, burned alive, drowned, poisoned, or fell victim to disease, according to foreign diplomats and intelligence services at the time.

Turkey's defeat in the war led to the creation of a short-lived independent Armenian state in 1918.

Growing recognition

Armenians have long sought international recognition of the events as genocide, defined in a 1948 UN convention as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

In 1965 Uruguay became the first country to do so. The European Parliament recognized the killings as genocide in 1987 and France was the first major European country to apply the term in 2001.

Parliaments in nearly 30 countries have since passed laws, resolutions, or motions recognizing the genocide.

In some cases, however, only one chamber has passed a vote or it has been defined as non-binding, allowing the government to keep some distance.

These include Russia, Germany, Brazil, Sweden, Argentina, Austria, Lebanon, and The Netherlands.

Some countries go even further and punish genocide denials, such as Cyprus, Slovakia, and Switzerland.

However, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2015 that Switzerland's 2007 conviction of a Turkish politician for calling the genocide a "great international lie" was an infringement of the right to free speech.

Pope speaks out

On the 100th anniversary of the killings in 2015, Pope Francis described them as "the first genocide of the 20th century".

He was the first pontiff to speak out so clearly on the issue.

Germany's lower house recognized the killings as genocide a year later, although the government said the vote was not legally binding.

In February 2021 the Dutch parliament passed a motion urging the government to recognize the killings as genocide.

Biden urged to be bold

In 2019 the US Congress recognized the killings as genocide in a symbolic vote.

Former President Barack Obama had promised recognition but never did for fear of alienating Turkey, NATO's second-largest military power after the US.

Shortly after his arrival in the White House, more than 100 Congress members pressed Joe Biden to make good on a campaign promise to formally recognize the genocide.

US Armenians welcomes 'little step'

President Joe Biden's recognition of the Armenian genocide was met Saturday by tempered satisfaction from the nation's US diaspora, with some saying the words need to result in more pressure against Turkey.

"It's a middle step, because (Biden) didn't say Turkey," said Yvette Gevorkian, who was among some 400 people who marched in New York City to mark the memory of the World War I-era killings.

"But it's a victory for all this time we've been working towards," added the 51-year-old who arrived in the United States from Iran at the age of nine.

As many as 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have been killed from 1915 to 1917 during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which suspected the Christian minority of conspiring with adversary Russia in World War I.

Armenian populations were rounded up and deported into the desert of Syria on death marches in which many were shot, poisoned, or fell victim to disease, according to accounts at the time by foreign diplomats.

Turkey, which emerged as a secular republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, acknowledges that 300,000 Armenians may have died but strongly rejects that it was genocide.

It's a delicate issue for NATO ally Turkey, and nations like France, Germany, and Canada that have recognized the genocide.

"One side you say 'I recognize the Armenian genocide' but at the same time, you're giving (Turkey) technology, you support their army," said 40-year-old Mher Janian of the Armenian National Committee of America grassroots group.

Still, it's "a step toward the future for reparations, for a good relationship with our neighbors," he added.

'Justice should prevail'

Recognition has been a top priority for Armenia and Armenian-Americans, with calls for compensation and property restoration over what they call Meds Yeghern -- the Great Crime -- and appeals for more support against Turkish-backed neighbor Azerbaijan.

Marchers also gathered in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest Armenian communities in the world, to mark the day with Armenian flags and calls for accountability.

"Turkey must pay, Turkey will pay," the crowd chanted, while some held "Thank you Biden" signs.

During a rally in the capital, Washington demonstrators brandished "Reparations Now" placards as counter-protesters waved red Turkish flags.

Born in Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, or even the United States, Armenian Americans have taken many routes but share a history that remains unforgotten.

Ani Tervizian, who attended the New York rally, told of her grandmother recounting how her own mother and uncle had been victims of the massacre.

"The fact that so many generations have passed and you see all these youths that feel Armenian in a foreign land, to me, that's victory," the 58-year-old said.

The simple fact of the recognition was welcomed by people who hope nations can remember the horror of the killings and stop them from happening again elsewhere.

"The goal is not to alienate us from our allies but rather to bring to awareness that justice should prevail. We have to take action to prevent future genocide and massacres," said Archbishop prelate Anoushavan Tanielian of the Eastern Prelacy of the Apostolic Church of America.

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