By Ayla Jean Yackley
(Reuters) - A Turkish university facing accusations of treason has postponed a conference that offered a platform to academics questioning a national policy that denies any World War One genocide of Armenians.
The conference, due to start on Wednesday at Istanbul's Bosphorus University, was organized as Muslim Turkey faces mounting pressure from the European Union to accept that mass killings of Christian Armenians starting in 1915 was genocide.
Turkey's pro-European government has broken with past administrations and said it is willing to discuss historical differences with Armenians, but official policy still vehemently rejects claims that 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered. It accepts that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks but says even more Turks died in a partisan conflict that erupted as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said in parliament on Tuesday the conference by Turkish historians who say genocide occurred was a "stab in the back of the Turkish people. "We must end this treason, the spreading of propaganda against Turkey by the people who belong to it," he said.
Bosphorus University said it had decided to put off the conference because of the prevailing climate. "We are anxious that, as a state university, scientific freedom will be compromised due to prejudices about a conference that has not yet occurred," it said in a statement.
Edhem Eldem, a Bosphorus University historian, said organizers had not yet decided whether they would hold a conference at a later date or scrap the event completely. "The side that will suffer the greatest loss is, unfortunately, Turkey," Eldem said.
The European Union has said it wants to see Turkey improve ties with neighboring Armenia before it begins EU entry talks later this year. Some European officials have gone further, saying Turkey must acknowledge wrongdoing before starting talks.
An EU diplomat called Cicek's remarks "unbelievable. "It not only kills the government's policy on the Armenian issue. It will also kill support for Turkey's EU drive," the diplomat told Reuters.
Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian weekly Agos, echoed that view. "This (decision) strengthens the hand of those outside Turkey who say, 'Turkey has not changed, it is not democratic enough to discuss the Armenian issue.' It shows there is a difference between what the government says and its intentions."
Several European nations, including Poland, France and Greece, have passed resolutions that recognize the genocide. French President Jacques Chirac, whose country is home to Europe's largest Armenian Diaspora, urged Turkey this week to recognize the genocide and said failure to do so could harm Ankara's drive to join the EU.
Turkey has accused Europe of using the Armenian issue to mask efforts against Turkey's inclusion in the affluent bloc.