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By Benjamin Harvey
(AP) - Scholars attending a conference that addresses the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks said Sunday that, after decades of opposition, public opinion in Turkey was moving in favor of an open discussion.

The Turkish media and top government officials expressed support for the two-day conference, which started Saturday. But for a second day nationalist protesters hurled eggs and rotten tomatoes at arriving speakers they accused of treason, showing deep resistance to addressing claims that Turks committed genocide.

Turkey aspires to join the European Union, and the EU said it would view the conference as a test of freedom of expression.

"I suppose more and more people are getting to realize that the old positions are untenable," said Murat Belge, a member of the committee that organized the conference. "I mean the smoke over the question, the policy of denial."

The conference faced heavy opposition from the outset and was canceled twice - including on Thursday by an Istanbul court that demanded to know the academic qualifications of the speakers - before beginning Saturday at Istanbul Bilgi University.

"Especially after that absurd court decision three days ago ... looking at the press the next day, at the magnitude of the public reaction, I knew this was going to be a success," said Halil Berktay, a historian and member of the organizing committee. "The old clichés of official, conventional, denialist ideology are dead."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed support for the conference and criticized the court order, which organizers skirted by changing the venue. Participants at the conference - including Turks and ethnic Armenians - were mostly careful to avoid emotional language. On Saturday, historians discussed the events leading up to and following the massacres in 1915-1923, going through them year by year. On Sunday, they dealt with broader issues, including "The Armenian problem and Turkish democracy" and "Press Freedom and the Armenian problem."

Delegates to the conference had no plans to issue a declaration on whether genocide occurred, Berktay said, but were using the gathering as a forum to openly examine the historical experience of Armenians around the time of the Ottoman collapse. Many of the panelists have previously said the killings constituted genocide. A number of them have received death threats in Turkey for doing so.

Turkey vehemently denies that a genocide was carried out on Armenians as the Ottoman Empire collapsed around the time of World War I, saying that Armenians who rose in rebellion and sided with Russian invaders were killed along with Turks in intercommunal fighting. Armenians say that 1.5 million of their ancestors were killed by Ottoman Turks in a vicious policy of extermination. Turkey had never permitted the issue to be discussed in public until this conference.

"A lot of people now understand that, if a certain society says only one thing about a question, that is not a sign of strength, but the opposite," Belge said. "The atmosphere in the media has changed overnight, and that's going to influence public opinion."

Turkey is under intense pressure to improve its performance on issues of freedom of expression and human rights as it moves toward negotiations beginning October 3 for EU membership.

(Yerkir-Media-Photolur photo)
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