Thu. Nov. 30, 2006. | Updated at 05:32 AM
One word Pope dares not speak
Armenians won’t mention what most consider genocide, but Turks tend to dismiss as legend
Nov. 30, 2006. 01:00 AM
ISTANBUL, turkey-At the Armenian Patriarchate in this city’s old town, His Beatitude Mesrob II is surrounded by icons and relics that speak to his flock’s long history in Turkey.
But on the most tragic part of that history - the mass slaughter of Armenians in 1915 - the Patriarch expresses a personal ignorance typical of his followers.
Mesrob knows that five of his grandfather’s brothers were deported to the Syrian dessert, where hundreds of thousands were massacred, but has no idea what became of them.
His parents never spoke of their fate, despite hints that one or two may have survived and their offspring might be living in the United States.
"They never talked about it because I think they didn’t want us to be at odds with our Muslim neighbours," he said in an interview. "That’s the usual case in Turkey. We don’t tell our children about historic events so they won’t face any problems."
For Armenians in Turkey, it’s best not to mention what most of them consider genocide, but many Turks dismiss as a legend.
Simply mentioning the massacre often guarantees a trial on charges of "insulting Turkishness" - a legal catch-all the justice ministry uses to stifle challenges to state orthodoxy.
So sensitive is the topic here that Pope Benedict’s meeting with Mesrob today will be closely watched for any allusion to the Armenian tragedy. Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, recognized the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide in a 2000 document.
Any mention of the word would likely cause a political storm and destroy the charm offensive Benedict XVI has conducted since arriving Tuesday for his four-day trip. If he strays into this political minefield, most observers believe he’ll follow Mesrob’s example and duck the word genocide.
Asked if he acknowledges genocide occurred, Mesrob paused awkwardly for a moment before replying, "Ahh, I acknowledge that people were killed, many people lost their lives."
Mesrob, whose church belongs to the family of Oriental Orthodox churches, calls it an act of "ethnic cleansing" carried out as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. Some historians estimate 1.5 million Armenians, most of them Christians, were systematically slaughtered.
An estimated 100,000 Armenians live in Turkey, one third of them guest workers.
Murat Belge, a leading Turkish scholar who last year organized a conference on the treatment of Armenians in 1915, said Mesrob did well to avoid the word.
"If he had said there was an Armenian genocide, it’s very likely that he would be assassinated by some fascists, the Patriarchate would be burned and Armenians leading their daily lives would be shot by unknown people," Belge said in an interview.
"And all this would be attributed by the media to the injured nationalist feelings of the Turkish people, and the Patriarch would be blamed for starting it all," he added.
Belge heads the publishing house that produces the novels of Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist charged last year for telling a Swiss newspaper, "A million Armenians were killed and nobody but me dares to talk about it."
Charges of "insulting Turkishness" were later dropped on a technicality. Months later, novelist Elif Shafak was charged because a fictional character accuses Turks of committing the genocide. Those, too, were eventually dropped.
Turkey’s denial has hurt the Muslim country’s bid to join the 25-nation European Union. Last month, French President Jacques Chirac said recognizing the genocide should be a condition for membership. The French parliament also incensed the Turkish government by passing a bill making it a crime to deny the genocide.
Egemen Bagis, foreign policy adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, noted Erdogan made a groundbreaking gesture last month by offering to set up an independent inquiry with historians on both sides of the Armenian issue. But it was rejected by Armenia as little more than a ploy.
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