Six months after attending a ceremony in Turkey meant to deflect international attention from the centenary of the Armenian genocide, Britain’s Prince Charles paid tribute to its victims at a special church service held in London late on Wednesday.
The ecumenical service at Westminster Abbey was led by Bishop Richard Charters of London and Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Charles attended it along with President Serzh Sarkisian.
“This evening we call to mind the killing of innocent Armenians a hundred years ago,” Rev. John Hall, another high-ranking Anglican cleric, said at the solemn ceremony featuring hymns sung by an Armenian church choir. “With sorrow we remember so much blood spilt. With thanksgiving we celebrate the Holy Martyrs and ask for their prayers.”
The service was part of worldwide events marking the 100th anniversary of the genocide, which began on April 24, 1915 with mass arrests of Armenian political leaders and intellectuals in Constantinople. Up to 1.5 million Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire were murdered or starved to death in the following years.
The most important events marking the genocide centennial in and outside Armenia took place on April 24, 2015. The Turkish government, which strongly denies that the 1915 massacres constituted genocide, tried to deflect the resulting international spotlight by holding its annual commemoration of a major World War One-era battle on the same day.
Ankara had traditionally celebrated the Turkish victory in the 1915-1916 Battle of Gallipoli on April 25. The Armenian government condemned it for moving up this year’s Gallipoli ceremony by one day.
Charles was among a host of mostly Muslim foreign leaders who took part in the ceremony at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invitation. His participation upset many in Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora.
One of the likely reasons why Queen Elizabeth’s heir apparent took part in the Westminster Abbey service is his close rapport with Armen Sarkissian, the Armenian ambassador to the United Kingdom who has lived in London since the early 1990s. Sarkissian was instrumental in Charles’ 2013 visit to Armenia.
Statements by the press offices of President Sarkisian and Westminster Abbey did not list any senior British government officials among those who attended the service. Their apparent absence reflected the current and previous British governments’ refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide.
“Recognizing the genocide would provide no practical benefit to the UK,” the British Foreign Office advised ministers in a 1999 memo that was disclosed by “The Guardian” daily a decade later. The document cited “the importance of our relations with Turkey.”
In 2004, the then British ambassador to Armenia, Thorda Abbott-Watt, publicly stated that there is not enough evidence to term the Armenian massacres a genocide. The statement provoked a storm of protests in Armenia and the Diaspora, leading the Foreign Ministry in Yerevan to send a diplomatic note to London.
The UK Foreign Office adopted a more neutral stance on the sensitive issue in 2010. While continuing to oppose British recognition of the genocide, the office reportedly said that British officials should now stop openly denying it.
Ironically, official British documents dating back to World War One have been a major source of reference in the decades-long Armenian campaign for international recognition of the genocide. The Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan has a special plaque dedicated to Lord James Bryce, the main author of the British government’s 1916 Blue Book that detailed the mass killings and deportations of Ottoman Armenians.