Istanbul Patriarch Urges Turkish Armenian ‘Dialogue’ As Genocide Bill Gathers Support in US

ISTANBUL (RFE/RL)–The spiritual leader of the Armenian community in Turkey said on Friday that growing international efforts to recognize the 1915 massacre of more than one million Armenia’s in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide necessitate an urgent dialogue between the two peoples. The appeal came the next day after a key subcommittee of the US House of Representatives endorsed a bill that would amount to an official American recognition of the genocide–until now opposed by successive White House administrations.

Treading a delicate line between reaffirming his flock’s loyalty to the Turkish state and ethnic brethren in Armenia and other Diaspora communities–Patriarch Mesrob II of Istanbul said Armenia’s and Turks must themselves address the heavy burden of their past.

"It is not pleasing when other parliamen’s take decisions on issues pertaining to Turkish-Armenian relations. We also believe that such interference is inevitable–and that this regretful situation will persist as long as the parties do not look for a solution to the issue by means of a dialogue," the Patriarch said in a statement from his Istanbul headquarters. "The involvement of parliamen’s of third countries is no substitute for that dialogue."

The House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights voted on Thursday in favor of a bill that calls on President Bill Clinton and his successors to ensure that US diplomats dealing with human rights are educated about the Armenian Genocide and use the word "genocide" in their annual addresses to the Armenian-Americans. The legislation known as H.Res. 398 is due to be debated on Tuesday by the full House International Relations Committee. A favorable vote in the committee will help move H. Res. 398 to the House floor for a vote.

The subcommittee vote has provoked an angry reaction from Ankara–with Turkish leaders again warning of a deterioration of relations with Washington–its number one military ally. Turkish Minister Bulent Ecevit described on Friday the vote as a "sad and ugly event," while President Ahmet Necdet Sezer urged the Clinton administration to make more efforts to block the bill’s passage.

The Armenian government–for its part–has welcomed the latest development in the US Congress. In his speech at this month’s UN "millennium summit" President Robert Kocharian reiterated Yerevan’s intent to seek international recognition of the 1915 genocide.

The Turkish Daily News quoted on Saturday an unnamed diplomatic source in Ankara as saying that by continuing to encourage the efforts by Armenian-American lobbying groups Yerevan makes the normalization of relations between the two neighboring countries impossible. Turkey refuses to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia until the latter recognizes Azeri sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and ensures the return of occupied Azeri districts around the disputed territory. Ankara says Armenian insistence on genocide recognition further complicates matters.

Turkish officials vehemently deny that the mass killings and deportations of the Ottoman Armenia’s were masterminded and perpetrated by the regime of the Young Turks. Foreign Minister Ismail Cem stood by that interpretation of the events in a recent interview with Milliyet–a leading Turkish daily. "Even the developmen’s that took place when the Armenian people…cooperated with the foreign occupation forces in the past cannot be described as an act of genocide," he said.

A prominent Turkish journalist–Mehmet Ali Birand–wrote in the Turkish Daily News on Saturday that possible approval of the genocide resolution by the US Congress would deal a severe blow to Turkish foreign policy. He said: "Our relations with Washington will be damaged almost beyond repair… This will be followed by European countries’ parliamen’s following suit and recognizing similar bills. We will be on the floor with no chance of getting up."

Birand argued that the authorities in Ankara are also to blame for how far the Armenia’s have gone in having the international community pick up their cause. "They said the [Ottoman] archives would be opened; they were not. Not enough scientific or popular research has been carried out. The gentlemen in Ankara figured they could ride this one out by uttering phrases such as ‘strategic importance,’ ‘the importance of the military’ and ‘great allies.’ Come on gentlemen–time for action. If we are right–let us prove we are."

The statement by Patriarch Mesrob also said: "I don’t believe that anyone will profit from this–and I think it will hurt Turkish-Armenian relations." He also expressed hope that the Turks "will correctly analyze the latest developmen’s and will not allow them to do harm to Turkey’s [ethnic] Armenian citizens."

In another statement issued on Saturday–the Patriarch complained that the Turkish authorities have yet to address the grievances of the 70,000-strong Armenian community. The Armenian Apostolic Church–he claimed–is facing serious obstacles to the replacement of the aging clergy of its Istanbul churches. Also–under Turkish law citizens of Armenian descent can not bequeath any property to Armenian community institutions.

"The government should not stop solving problems facing Turkey’s Armenia’s due to negative developmen’s abroad," the Patriarch concluded.

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