President Serzh Sarkisian accused Turkey of maintaining hostile attitudes towards the Armenians as tens of thousands of people marched on Sunday to a hilltop memorial in Yerevan to mark the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire.
The annual day-long procession followed a prayer service led by Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, by the eternal fire of the Tsitsernakabert memorial to some 1.5 million Armenians massacred by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. Sarkisian and other senior Armenian officials also attended the ceremony.
Genocide remembrance ceremonies were also held by Armenian Diaspora communities around the world.
“More than a century has passed since the genocide,” Sarkisian said in a written address to the nation. “What has changed? First of all, we have changed. We have been reborn as a nation and as a state. We have proved to ourselves and the world that the Turkish genocidal plans failed.”
“What has not changed is Turkey’s denialist stance and hostile attitude towards everything Armenian” he went on. “This is a direct continuation of the crime going on nowadays.”
Sarkisian stressed at the same time that unlike Turkey’s government and policy-makers, “the Turkish society has partly changed” with regard to the genocide issue. “Today it knows more about Turkish history than it did yesterday,” he said. “Tomorrow it will know even more than it does today, unless, of course, they strangle free speech and media, shoot and arrest parliamentarians, public figures and editors.”
The mass killings and deportations of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian subjects began on April 24, 1915 with the arrest and subsequent execution of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople. More than two dozen nations, including France, Russia, Italy and Canada, as well as the European Parliament have officially recognized the massacres as genocide.
The United States has so far declined to do the same, anxious not to antagonize Turkey, a key NATO ally. While again avoiding the word “genocide,” U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday described the Armenian massacres as “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century.” Obama reaffirmed his belief that “one and a half million Armenian people were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman empire.”
In an annual statement, Obama also cited views on the subject expressed by Pope Francis. The pontiff declared during an April 2015 mass at the Vatican that the events of 1915 can be considered “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry was quick to criticize Obama’s statement as “one-sided.” “We call upon the U.S. Administration to adopt an objective, prudent and constructive approach, which takes the sufferings of all sides into consideration, by evaluating the historical realities on the basis of a just memory,” it said.
Successive Turkish governments have claimed that Armenians died in much smaller numbers and as a result of war and turmoil, rather than a premeditated Ottoman government policy. In an April 2015 speech, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended “the relocation of the Armenian population in Anatolia to southern lands.”
Erdogan referred to a Syrian desert where hundreds of thousands of Armenians -- mostly women, children and elderly people -- were killed or starved to death. Scores of others died on their way to the Deir ez-Zor camps.
Most Western historians specializing in research of crimes against humanity have dismissed the official Turkish position. “The historical record on the Armenian Genocide is unambiguous and documented by overwhelming evidence,” the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) said in a 2007 statement.