President Serzh Sarkisian said on Thursday that he will tour major Armenian communities abroad early next month to explain and promote his far-reaching diplomatic overtures to Turkey which many in the Diaspora have been following with unease.
Sarkisian made the announcement as he met with Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He said he will start on October 1 a series of visits to Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Beirut and Rostov-on-Don, Russia.
All of those cities and their surrounding areas have sizable ethnic Armenian populations. Sarkisian was quoted by his press service as telling Garegin that he wants to hear community leaders’ “views on the process of the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.”
Garegin welcomed the initiative. “The Diaspora is an important and inseparable part of our people and it is only right for our Diaspora sons … to be able to hear answers from you personally to questions preoccupying them,” Garegin said, according to the presidential press service. “Also, you will expose yourself to the thoughts, opinions and concerns of our Diaspora sons.”
Some Diaspora leaders have expressed serious concern about key points of two Turkish-Armenian draft protocols envisaging the normalization of bilateral relations. They are particularly critical of the planned creation of a Turkish-Armenian panel of historians that would look into the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Diaspora groups also object to another protocol clause that commits Armenia to recognizing its existing border with Turkey. They argue that it would preclude future Armenian territorial claims to areas in eastern Turkey that were populated by their ancestors until the 1915-1918 massacres.
The Beirut-based Catholicos Aram I, the number two figure in the Armenian Church hierarchy, added his voice to those concerns in a letter to Sarkisian made public on Thursday. “The ongoing developments in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey have become a cause for serious concern in the Diaspora,” he wrote.
Aram singled out the planned “sub-commission” of historians for criticism. He said its existence would make it easier for Ankara to deny that the slaughter of more than one million Ottoman Armenians was a genocide.
Aram and Diaspora dioceses of the Armenian Church subordinated to him are reputedly close to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), one of the most vocal critics of Sarkisian’s Turkish policy which is particularly influential in the Diaspora. Dashnaktsutyun’s organization in Armenia is now actively campaigning against the signing of the Turkish-Armenian agreements.
The church’s main, Echmiadzin-based Catholicosate has rarely challenged Yerevan governments and will likely be more supportive of the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. Garegin told Sarkisian that the church’s Supreme Spiritual Council will meet soon to discuss and formulate its position on the issue.
The planned meetings will be part of “internal political consultations” which Ankara and Yerevan pledged to initiate before signing the controversial protocols by mid-October. Sarkisian described the intensifying debates on the matter as “very useful.”
“Of course, they have some emotional manifestations and elements,” he told Garegin. “And it could not have been otherwise because a huge segment of our people are a generation of persons subjected to genocide. Besides, we have our shrines, our churches, our [medieval] capital and the remnants of many, many people’s ancestral homes across the [Turkish] border.”
“I do realize this because often times I myself internally struggle with my emotions,” added Sarkisian.