REPORTING FROM TURKEY
Silence in Turkey’s genocide controversy ISTANBUL, Turkey - Mesrob II, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul and all Turkey, was silent for a second.
He just had been asked by a reporter whether he acknowledged that the Armenian genocide happened.
"Uhhhh," he said, "I acknowledge that people were killed." He was silent again. "Many people lost their lives."
More uneasy silence followed.
This from a man whose paternal grandfather was the only one of six ethnic Armenian brothers to make it back to Istanbul after being, as he put it, "deported to the Syrian desert" in 1915. They were among more than a million ethnic Armenians who suffered a similar fate at the hands of Ottoman Turks : They were rounded up, deported to concentration camps and, for the most part, killed.
"So severe has been the treatment that careful estimates place the number of survivors at only 15 percent of those originally deported," the U.S. consul in Aleppo wrote to the State Department in 1915 in a dispatch quoted in a recent article in The New Yorker magazine. "On this basis the number surviving even this far being less than 150,000 ... there seems to have been about 1,000,000 persons lost up to this date."
What Mesrob II, who will meet the visiting Pope Benedict XVI today in Istanbul, could not or would not say was that the Turks of the then-Ottoman Empire committed genocide against the Armenians who lived in modern-day Turkey. For the Turkish state, and many Turks, to admit their forebears committed genocide is something they will not even consider, and it makes many Turks extremely angry even to suggest the genocide happened. Authors and journalists, including Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, were prosecuted for suggesting it took place. But for the 65,000 ethnic Armenians - mostly Orthodox Christians - who live in this country of 70 million Muslims, to speak publicly of genocide would not be just brave, but potentially suicidal.
"Probably the state wouldn’t do anything directly except make some statement" if Mesrob were to say there was a genocide, said Murat Belge, one of Pamuk’s publishers and an organizer of an unprecedented conference last year in Istanbul about the genocide.
"Very likely he would be assassinated by some fascists," continued Belge, who was himself prosecuted under a controversial law last year for writing critical articles about a court’s ban on the conference. "The Patriarchate would be burned down. A lot of Armenians would be shot in their daily lives."
Mesrob, in an interview at the well-guarded Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, said many different peoples, governments, political parties and even his own Armenian Patriarchate should share the blame for what happened in 1915. He said he believed the best way for Turks and Armenians to reconcile is for Turkey to open its border with Armenia and for the two countries to encourage exchange visits and other ways of generating mutual sympathy.
"It’s not a matter of being silent about the issue," he said. "It’s a matter of how can you make friends with someone. Do you from the first moment simply confront the person ?"
If it’s not silence, then it’s a pragmatic sort of self-censorship. Growing up, Mesrob’s father never talked to him about what happened to the previous generation, he said. "I think they didn’t want us to be at odds with our Muslim neighbors."
That parenting method continues today among the ethnic Armenians in Turkey, Mesrob said. "We don’t tell our children about historical problems so they won’t face problems."
The Turkish government’s position on the events of 1915 is that the people who died in the region at the time died as a result of inter-ethnic fighting, disease and hardships caused by war.
More than 20 countries have officially recognized the genocide, as have a majority of the 50 states in the United States, including New York. It is long-standing State Department policy not to refer to the events of 1915 as genocide ; many critics of this policy see it as a politically expedient way of avoiding alienating a crucial U.S. ally.
Most Western historians agree the genocide happened. Last year, the International Association of Genocide Scholars wrote to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about it, concluding : "We believe that it is clearly in the interest of the Turkish people and their future as a proud and equal participant in international, democratic discourse to acknowledge the responsibility of a previous government for the genocide of the Armenian people, just as the German government and people have done in the case of the Holocaust."
Such an acknowledgment will not come easily or quickly - if at all.
"Until the 1980s there was a total loss of memory," said a Turkish political power broker who requested anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity. "Nobody talked about this. It was the policy of the omnipotent state not to talk about anything negative."
Last year’s conference in Istanbul and a growing concern about the issue in Europe - a recent French law makes it a crime to deny the genocide - have moved Turkey slightly closer to coming to terms with its past.
"The skeletons are there and they have not vanished," the Turkish power broker said. "Now we are going to open the cupboard."
If Turkey is to gain entry to the European Union, it likely will have to acknowledge its actions in 1915 - although Turkey accepting the word "genocide" could forever remain a sticking point.
Egemen Bagis, foreign policy adviser to Erdogan, said in an interview that last year Erdogan made an offer to the Armenian president : Both countries would establish an independent investigative commission and open up all countries’ archives to establish what happened.
"No other politician in Turkey’s history has ever said he is ready to face his own history," Bagis said.
But when asked whether he recognized that a genocide took place, Bagis responded quickly : "I don’t."
Newsday - Long Island,NY,USA
November 30, 2006
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