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Europe

Armenians express surprise over Turkish reaction to genocide remarks

media Armenian protesters demonstrate near the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, January 28, 2015 REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

The hostile Turkish reaction to Pope Francis’s remarks at a commemorative meeting for the centennial of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey has been received with surprise in Armenia, but in Turkey there’s understanding for the official stance.

On Sunday, the pope said that the massacre of Armenians marked the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, reacted on Twitter to say that the statement was out of legal context and summoned the Vatican’s envoy to Ankara for an explanation.

Observers in Armenia’s capital Yerevan say that they found Turkey's reaction baffling.

"They made the genocide issue even bigger than it would have been if it had concerned a normal commemoration," says Richard Giragossian, director of the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan. "Moreover, the pope’s statement was not even a direct call on Turkey.”

But other analysts disagree.

“The term genocide is an expression that was put forward after the Second World War to describe something that happened during the First World War,” says Iltar Turan, a political scientist with the Bilgi University in Istanbul.

He says that he sees what Armenia describes as genocide as “essentially forced immigration of Armenians, during which substantial numbers of them lost their lives, some of disease, some from starvation, some from the attacks by local tribes who robbed them, and some in prison.”

He acknowledges that this was “a very, very cruel human experience, but it happened during the First World War, and the measures were essentially taken as defensive measures when Armenians were cooperating with invading Russian forces, to carve out a territory for themselves inland where they did not have the majority.”

At this moment, 23 countries recognise the 1915 massacres as genocide, including France, Russia, Germany, Switzerland and Argentina.

But one country with a history intertwined with genocide, Israel, does not recognise the massacres of Armenians as such.

Dan Michman, the director of the Finkler Institute for Holocaust Research in Jerusalem, says that many individual groups in Israel do so.

“The current president of Israel has expressed interest in it, but that has to do with the long-time policies with Turkey, so it never came to an official statement, whereas on the level of studies and discourses it is definitely mentioned,” he said.

Giragossian says that although the Vatican is moving differently on the diplomatic front, making some concessions to Turkey, in the end, it sides with what Armenia regards as the truth.

“This is neither the first nor the last time that we’ll hear the Vatican address the Armenian genocide issue," he said. "The Turkish government overreacted maybe because the pope paid a visit to Turkey last November and, more recently, decided to cancel plans to visit Armenia on 24 April to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the genocide.”

Turan, of Bilgi University, maintains that the issue is taken out of context, and should be placed within the larger historical framework of the First World War. “At the beginning of last century,” he says, “All the Muslim populations were cleaned out of the Balkans, and quite large numbers were killed.

Nobody considers that as an important event, but one event leads to another. It was an interactive process where a multi-national empire was being dismembered and all of the nations or ethnic groups were out to get each other," he adds.

“Turks are picked as the responsible element for one thing, whereas this is part of a broader process in which everyone killed everyone else and Turks were not the only perpetrators of anything that the others did not do.”

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