U.S. President Barack Obama has praised Pope Francis, mentioned a Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide” but again declined to use it in his latest statement on the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
In what one Armenian-American group criticized as “linguistic gymnastics,” Obama spoke instead of “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century” as he marked its 100th anniversary late on Thursday. He also again used the Armenian phase “Meds Yeghern,” or Great Calamity, to refer to the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians.
“Beginning in 1915, the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths,” he said. “Their culture and heritage in their ancient homeland were erased. Amid horrific violence that saw suffering on all sides, one and a half million Armenians perished.”
“As the horrors of 1915 unfolded, U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr. sounded the alarm inside the U.S. government and confronted Ottoman leaders,” he added, referring to an American diplomat who has been a key reference source for Armenians campaigning for international recognition of the genocide.
In a 1915 telegram to the U.S. State Department, Morgenthau famously described the Armenian massacres as a "campaign of race extermination.”
“Because of efforts like his, the truth of the Meds Yeghern emerged and came to influence the later work of human rights champions like Raphael Lemkin, who helped bring about the first United Nations human rights treaty,” Obama said, referring to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide” in 1943, referred to the atrocities against Armenians as well as the Nazi massacres of Jews when describing his investigations.
“We welcome the expression of views by Pope Francis, Turkish and Armenian historians, and the many others who have sought to shed light on this dark chapter of history,” read Obama’s statement.
It alluded to the pontiff’s April 12 declaration that the events of 1915 can be considered “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Turkey reacted furiously to the move, recalling its ambassador to the Vatican.
The pope’s statement, voiced during a Vatican Mass, reportedly caused a rift within the Obama administration between proponents and opponents of Armenian genocide recognition. News reports from Washington said earlier this week that Obama eventually chose to side with those State Department and Pentagon officials who believe that that using the word genocide would be very risky now that Washington needs Ankara’s help in fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
Obama’s decision was communicated to the leaders of the two main Armenian-American lobbying organizations on Tuesday. Both groups deplored his resulting statement.
"The sad spectacle of President Obama playing word games with genocide, so obviously dodging the truth at the direction of a foreign power, falls beneath the dignity of the American people," said Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America.
"President Obama's exercise in linguistic gymnastics on the Armenian Genocide is unbecoming of the standard he himself set and that of a world leader today,” said Bryan Ardouny of the Armenian Assembly of America.
Obama repeatedly described the Armenian massacres as genocide and pledged to ensure its official recognition by the U.S. when he ran for president in 2008. However, he backpedaled on that pledge after becoming president, anxious not to anger Turkey.
Obama on Thursday repeated that his personal view on what happened in 1915 has not changed, hinting that he does not want to publicize for purely political reasons. “Peoples and nations grow stronger, and build a foundation for a more just and tolerant future, by acknowledging and reckoning with painful elements of the past,” he said in an apparent reference to Turkey.