Tens of thousands of people marched to a hilltop memorial in Yerevan on Wednesday in an annual remembrance of some 1.5 million Armenians killed in Ottoman Turkey during World War I in what many historians consider genocide.
The traditional procession marked the 98th anniversary of the arrest of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul. They were subsequently executed amid mass killings and deportations of Armenians across the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
“Today, we bow to the memory of innocent victims,” President Serzh Sarkisian said in a written address to the nation. “The great majority of these victims didn’t even have graves.”
“One of the indigenous and most ancient peoples of the region was exterminated on its own land or during its forced exile,” he said.
The daylong commemoration began in the morning with a prayer service held by Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II by the eternal fire of Yerevan’s Tsitsernakabert genocide memorial in the presence of Sarkisian and other top state officials. An incessant stream of people laid flowers there in the following hours.
In his statement, Sarkisian reaffirmed his government’s commitment to seeking greater international recognition of the Armenian massacres as genocide. “It is our duty to realize and to bring the attention of the international community to the fact that denial of the Genocide constitutes direct continuation of that very crime and that crime is continuing in modern-day Turkey,” he said.
“Some are trying to persuade us ‘not to reopen the hundred-year-old wounds but to look forward.’ Our response to this counsel is the following: [Turkish writer] Orhan Pamuk and [Turkish-Armenian journalist] Hrant Dink were not brought to trial a hundred years ago. They were tried right before our eyes. For the Armenian as well as for the Turkish societies this issue is current and urgent,” added the Armenian leader.
Successive Turkish governments have vehemently denied that the 1915 killings constituted genocide. They have said that Armenians died in small numbers and because of internal strife, rather than a premeditated Ottoman government effort to exterminate a key Christian minority.
Some two dozen countries -- among them France, Italy and Russia -- have officially recognized the Armenian genocide. Many historians in the West also regard the slaughter of Ottoman Armenians as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Sarkisian has previously expressed confidence that Turkey will eventually do the same. A mere Turkish recognition would hardly satisfy all Armenians, however.
“We don’t need their apology, we want a compensation,” a leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), said late on Tuesday, addressing hundreds of young supporters of his pan-Armenian party during their traditional torch march to the Tsisternakabert memorial.
Hovannisian claimed that Ankara might recognize the genocide ahead of its 100th anniversary in 2015 to try to avoid such compensation.
In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, Garegin II and the Lebanon-based Catholicos Aram I, the number two figure in the Armenian Apostolic Church hierarchy, similarly said that the Turkish state should not only acknowledge the genocide but also “fully compensate the Armenian people for their losses.”
They said this must include returning hundreds of worship sites and other properties that belonged to the Armenian Church until 1915. Most of them were located in what is now eastern Turkey, an area that was part of ancient and medieval Armenian kingdoms.