For the first time ever, Turkey will permit Armenians to hold a religious service this week to commemorate the massacres and deportations of a century ago, Turkish officials said Monday. Turkey will even send a senior government official to attend.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu disclosed the gesture as he issued the second annual statement of condolences for the deaths of “innocent Ottoman Armenians” in what Armenia and a score of other countries call a genocide.
Officials said the government moved up the announcement of the service, scheduled for Friday, after the German government said it would support a motion in the German parliament to recognize the 1915 deportation and massacres as a genocide, something the United States, Britain, Israel and most of the rest of the world have thus far refused to do.
Armenia will mark the centennial of the mass killings this Friday in Yerevan, its capital, and Armenians living in Istanbul plan an informal rally in the city’s Taksim Square. But a religious service in the church of the Armenian Patriarch, with a government official in attendance, is not only a unique event but also another step by Turkey toward recognition of claims it has long denied.
April 24, 1915, was the date the Ottoman Empire, at war and nearing collapse, arrested several hundred Armenian political and cultural figures in Istanbul and deported them to central Anatolia. That launched a process of arrests, deportations and mass killings that all but emptied the Anatolian peninsula, today’s Turkey, of its Armenian population and left at least 1 million dead by late 1917, according to historical records.
“We, the descendants of nations belonging to different ethnic and religious origins . . . understand what the Armenians feel,” Davutoglu said in his statement. “We remember with respect the innocent Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives and offer our deep condolence to their descendants.”
It was both “a historical and a humane” duty for Turkey to “stand up for the memory of the Ottoman Armenians and the Armenian cultural heritage,” he said. With this in mind, he added that the Armenian Patriarchate would hold a religious ceremony.
Few here expect a positive response from Armenia, where officials are still furious that Turkey is staging a commemoration of its own on Friday, the centennial of the failed allied landing at Galipoli. In January, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited his Armenian counterpart to attend the Galipoli commemoration, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan rejected it in an open letter to Erdogan that accused him of continuing Turkey’s “traditional policy of denialism” surrounding the Armenian genocide.
Earlier this month, Erdogan labeled as “nonsense” a statement by Pope Francis that called the events of 1915 “widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century.”
But Turkey’s efforts to continue to fight the genocide label for the Armenia expulsion may be a losing one. The latest setback was Germany’s decision Monday to declare the 1915 events a genocide. Germany had been reluctant to use the legal term, partly out of respect for Turkey, a major trading and NATO ally, and also because it has been slow to judge other countries in light of its role in the mass killing of Jews during World War II.
As recently as Sunday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had rejected using the word in a television interview.
But Germany is in a unique position to reach its own judgment on the 1915 events in Ottoman Turkey, for the two countries were allies during World War I. German military and diplomatic officials were closely monitoring Turkey’s actions against Armenians and on more than one occasion urged a change of policy.
McClatchy special correspondent Duygu Guvenc contributed from Ankara.