By Emil DanielyanThousands of Turks have joined their prominent countrymen in publicly apologizing for the World War I-era mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
The unprecedented apology was initiated earlier this month by a group of 200 Turkish academics, journalists, writers and artists disagreeing with the official Turkish version of what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century. Their petition, entitled “I apologize,” was posted on a special website (www.ozurdiliyoruz.com) on Monday. More than 7,000 Turks signed it as of Tuesday evening, indicating their names, occupations and places of residence.
“I cannot conscientiously accept the indifference to the Great Catastrophe that Ottoman Armenians suffered in 1915, and its denial,” reads the petition. “I reject this injustice and acting of my own will, I share the feelings and pains of my Armenian brothers and sisters, and I apologize to them.”
The signatories were careful not to describe the Armenian massacres as genocide, a highly sensitive term resented by the Turkish state and nationalist circles. Some prominent intellectuals that have used the word have been prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness.” One of them, Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink, was gunned down by a nationalist teenager in January 2007.
The “Great Catastrophe” evoked by the authors of the petition appears to be a translation of the Armenian phrase “Mets Yeghern” frequently used with regard to the 1915 massacres.
Turkish nationalists were quick to criticize the online apology. The Associated Press news agency reported that a group of some 60 retired Turkish diplomats issued a statement on Monday describing the move "as unfair, wrong and unfavorable to national interests." "Such an incorrect and one-sided attempt would mean disrespecting our history," the diplomats said.
Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the opposition Nationalist Action Party said: "No one has the right to insult our ancestors, to present them as criminals and to ask for an apology."
"We are not betraying anyone. We are merely telling the Armenians that we share their grief," countered Gila Benmayor, a journalist and columnist for the mass-circulation “Hurriyet” newspaper. Benmayor told the Associated Press that she signed the petition because she believes "the time has come for change."
Among the intellectuals who initiated the apology is Hasan Cemal, a veteran columnist working for another leading Turkish daily, “Milliyet.” Cemal is a grandson of Ahmed Djemal Pasha, one of the three top “Young Turks” that ruled Ottoman Turkey during the final years of the empire and are believed to have masterminded the slaughter more of more than a million Ottoman Armenians.
Djemal Pasha was assassinated by an Armenian gunman in Tbilisi in 1922. Hasan Cemal met with the assassin’s grandson when he traveled to Yerevan last September to cover Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s historic visit to Armenia.
The petition’s signatories also include Cem Ozdemir, the ethnic Turkish leader of Germany’s Green Party.