Ghosts in the Armenian genocide

image005On Friday, President Barack Obama broke a campaign promise to Armenian voters to declare the 1915 massacre of Armenians an act of “genocide.” As Glenn Kessler noted in a March Washington Post story anticipating that this might happen, Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden for years have not minced words about labeling as “genocide” the deaths of Armenians. They regularly lambasted President George W. Bush for not using the word “genocide.” And Obama’s promise that he would use the word — compared with Sen. John McCain’s position — got him enthusiastic support among the Armenian community.

I don’t think there’s terribly much disagreement here in the States about what Turkey did to Armenians 90 years ago or even whether that constitutes genocide but many politicians avoid the term because it enrages Turkey — one of our key Muslim allies.

This story did generate quite a bit of coverage, almost all of it solely political. Here’s the Associated Press. Here’s ABC News‘ Jake Tapper with a thorough look at the issue. This Los Angeles Times story about the aftermath of the changed position touched a bit on religion:

As he leaned against a tree at the consulate, Zorik Mooradian, 52, held up a large canvas splashed with the Armenian flag colors of red, orange and blue and the words, “Obama . . . Keep the Promise.”

“The founding fathers did not envision that we would compromise truth for politics,” said the disappointed Mooradian, who has been coming to the protests for three decades.

The scene was more somber in Montebello, where clergy with the Armenian Apostolic, Catholic and evangelical churches held a service with incense, hymns and an Armenian-language liturgy. Rows of Armenian youths in youth-group uniforms lined a path for participants to walk as they laid roses, carnations, lilies and other flowers at the base of a genocide monument.

None of the stories were terribly harsh about the changed position but I wish there were more discussion about the propriety of the change. In other words, even though there might be plenty to criticize about failing to keep a promise, sometimes it’s better to change a position than remain consistent. I’m not arguing one way or the other, but there was a noticeable lack of discussion.

Anyway, I thought the best religion-related treatment of the issue came from CNN. It used the story of Fethiye Cetin, a Turkish human rights lawyer who discovered her grandmother’s secret as an adult:

The little old lady in the white headscarf was Armenian. Her real name was not Seher, but Heranus Gadarian.

Cetin says at the age of nine, a Turkish gendarme captain ripped Heranus from the arms of her mother while they were on a brutal death march into the desert. A Turkish couple later adopted the Armenian girl, and gave her a Muslim name.

When Cetin first learned about her grandmother’s Armenian origins, she was shocked.

“I felt deceived,” she says. “I felt like going out into the street and screaming ‘they are lying to us.’” . . .

According to the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, in 1914 there were more then 2,000 Armenian churches scattered across what is now Turkey. Today, there are fewer then 50.

It’s a brief story but also discusses the efforts of the Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Aram Atesyan and the prayers of Armenian people to get Americans to help.

This story is about Islam and Christianity, of course. None of this week’s installments fully explored those angles. But here are two Los Angeles Times pieces that did a better job with that from when Obama visited Turkey earlier this month.

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  • Berge Jololian

    It is astonishing to read that President Obama did not use the word genocide to describe the Armenian experience 1915-23, when the word “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin to specifically describe the barbarity that befell the Armenians at the hands of the Turks.

    Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent and a holocaust survivor, coined the word “genocide” to properly characterize the slaughter of the Armenians, explaining that the Turks had intent to annihilate.

    Prior to the invention of the word genocide, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other world leaders described it as the Armenian holocaust.

    Imagine if back in the days of West Germany the US refrained from condemning the Holocaust, not wanting to offend or sour relations with a strategic ally.

  • seenitall

    As usual, our government, whether ruled by Republicans or Democrats, will continue to appease the Islamists in Turkey. Somehow, the crimes against humanity that the Turks committed against its Christian populations is a taboo subject. To aid and abet a felon after the fact is a crime in this country. The least our president can do is publicly acknowledge this crime and not aid the descendants of the Turkish murderers.

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  • Dave

    The only excuse for breaking this promise is political, and the only basis for any such excuse must be utilitarian: It is for the greater good of the greater number that Obama not personally inject the word “genocide” into this discussion. Once this principle is invoked, even the religious aspects are less important. Utilitarian conclusions are the vox dei of our age.

  • Julia Duin

    Hey Mollie – I wrote about this last Friday in the context of Islam and Christianity . Please see

  • nyoped

    “Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other world leaders described it as the Armenian holocaust”. The very year those vents happened (1915) Churchill had been fired from his job because his plan to invade North West of Ottoman Empire had been a total failure (Gallipoli). If we take Churchill seriously about 1915 then why not take Cheney seriously about Iraq?