(AP, AFP) - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan officially opened an Armenian museum in Istanbul on Sunday and said he was committed to protecting the rights of minority Armenians.
Erdogan joined Mesrob II, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, and other leaders of Turkey's Armenian Christian minority of 65,000 for the opening of the museum at the Yedikule Surp Pirgic Armenian Hospital.
"Armenian citizens are an indispensable part of (Turkey). Every artifact in this museum shows a past that was lived together," Erdogan said. "We are now protecting each other's rights, aware of our citizenship, and it will be like this forever."
The Turkish leader said Turks and Armenians had lived peacefully in the region for centuries and pledged that his government would watch over the rights of the Armenian minority. "As the prime minister of this country, I deem it a duty to protect the rights of these citizens along with others and to stand by them in good times and bad", Erdogan said.
Most Armenians in this predominantly Muslim but secular country live in Istanbul. Turkey, which recognizes Armenians as an official minority, is under pressure to improve rights for minorities as part of efforts to join the European Union. Turkey hopes that EU leaders will agree to open membership talks with it at a Dec. 17 summit.
Ties between Armenians and Turks have often been strained over the mass killing of Armenians during and after World War I. Armenians say that a 1915-1923 campaign to force Armenians out of eastern Turkey left 1.5 million people dead and amounted to genocide. Turkey objects to the use of the word "genocide." Turkey says the figures are inflated and that deaths were the result of civil unrest and not a planned campaign.
The museum includes religious artifacts, antique medical equipment and an Ottoman decree that established the hospital in 1832.