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25 April 2010

Obama avoids labeling massacres of Armenians 'genocide'

500px-Wegner-DSC_0124.jpg(CNN) - President Barack Obama on Saturday strongly deplored the massacres of Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, but again avoided using the controversial term "genocide" to describe it.

In a statement commemorating Armenian Remembrance Day, Obama solemnly labeled the massacres and death marches as "one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century."

Tackling an issue fraught with political landmines, Obama referred to the event as "the Meds Yeghern," a term that means the "great catastrophe" and one that is used by Armenians to describe the killings.

Geno19.jpgTurkey, a moderate Muslim state and a strong ally of the United States, fiercely denies that a genocide occurred during the days of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Ankara argues that Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians massacred each other on the killing fields of World War I.

Historians have extensively documented the Ottoman military's forced death march of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians into the Syrian desert in 1915. The massacres decimated the Armenian population in what is modern-day eastern Turkey.

Turkey pushes back against this characterization, and Ankara recalled its diplomat from the United States last month to protest the passage of a non-binding resolution in the House Foreign Relations Committee, which calls the 1915 killings a "genocide." Amb. Namik Tan has since returned to Washington.

Despite Obama's avoidance of the term "genocide," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said it regrets the expression of what it believes is a "wrong and one-sided political viewpoint" in the statement.

"Subjective memory records are the biggest enemy of historical facts. No nation can impose its memory records on another nation. Also, third countries do not have the right and authority to make judgments on the history of Turkish-Armenian relations based on political reasons."

Every year on April 24, Armenians around the world observe a remembrance day to honor the victims. For years, the Armenian government in Yerevan and influential Armenian diaspora groups have mounted a campaign to persuade other countries to formally label the events of 1915 "genocide."

The United Nations defines genocide as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

Those acts include killings, causing serious bodily or mental harm, or enforcing living conditions on a group of people "calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."

In Turkey's largest city of Istanbul on Saturday, people commemorated the event, saying "this pain belongs to all of us. This grief belongs to all of us." The event ended without incident as police circled the group to protect them. Nearby, a rival group waving Turkish flags and shouting nationalist slogans staged a counter protest.

As many as 200 people came out for the sit-in demonstration, led by mostly liberal intellectuals who are active in human rights issues. There were 20 to 25 counter-protesters.

When he was a presidential candidate, Obama said he would label the event a genocide, but like his recent predecessors he has not yet done so. In fact, the Turkish Foreign Ministry noted that "the written statements made by presidents of USA every year on April 24, has been made by President Obama this year."

However, Obama says his characterization of the event has been consistent.

"My view of that history has not changed. It is in all of our interest to see the achievement a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts," the president said in a statement released by the White House.

"The Meds Yeghern is a devastating chapter in the history of the Armenian people, and we must keep its memory alive in honor of those who were murdered and so that we do not repeat the grave mistakes of the past."

Obama praised Turks who saved Armenians in 1915 and said he was "encouraged by the dialogue among Turks and Armenians, and within Turkey itself" over "this painful history."

"Even as we confront the inhumanity of 1915, we also are inspired by the remarkable spirit of the Armenian people. While nothing can bring back those who were killed in the Meds Yeghern, the contributions that Armenians have made around the world over the last ninety-five years stand as a testament to the strength, tenacity and courage of the Armenian people."

Obama said he is joining Armenian-Americans and Armenians from around the world "to remember the awful events of 1915 with deep admiration for their contributions which transcend this dark past and give us hope for the future."

"The indomitable spirit of the Armenian people is a lasting triumph over those who set out to destroy them. Many Armenians came to the United States as survivors of the horrors of 1915. Over the generations, Americans of Armenian descent have richened our communities, spurred our economy, and strengthened
our democracy.

"The strong traditions and culture of Armenians also became the foundation of a new republic which has become a part of the community of nations, partnering with the world community to build a better future."

– CNN's Yesim Comert contributed to this report

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