Turkish President Abdullah Gul distanced himself on Thursday from criticism by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan over an apology by 200 Turkish intellectuals for the alleged genocide of ethnic Armenians in World War One.
The Internet campaign, which has drawn the ire of nationalists who regard it as an act of national betrayal, coincides with a diplomatic rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia led by Gul himself to end almost 100 years of hostility.
"The president's view is that the fact that the issue is discussed freely in academic and public circles is proof of the presence of democratic discussion in Turkey," a statement from Gul's office said.
On Wednesday, Erdogan said the campaign had no other benefit than "stirring up trouble, disturbing our peace and undoing the steps which have been taken".
Gul, a moderate former member of the ruling AK Party, was foreign minister under Erdogan until he was elected to the largely ceremonial post of president in July 2007. Media reports have speculated the two men have grown apart.
Turks, including Nobel-winning author Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted in the European Union candidate country for affirming that the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 amount to genocide. Turkey accepts that many Armenians were killed during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, but strongly denies Armenian claims it was genocide, saying that Muslim Turks also died in inter-ethnic conflicts. Western historians have backed Armenian claims that the killings amounted to genocide.
The apology, which avoids the word genocide and uses instead the term great catastrophe, threatens to reignite a controversy that challenges one of the ideological foundations of modern Turkey. It comes at a time of heightened nationalism in Turkey.
The staunchly nationalist opposition MHP party condemned the campaign, saying Turkey had "no crime to apologize about". "Nobody has the right to demand apology by distorting history and smearing our ancestors by portraying them as criminals," the party said in statement.
Organizers said the initiative, posted on the Internet (www.ozurdiliyoruz.com) along with a non-binding petition to gather signatures, was meant to allow Turks to offer a personal apology and to end an official silence.
Gul became the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia in September. Several meetings between Turkish and Armenian officials have followed and the two countries have expressed hopes of restoring full diplomatic relations soon.