WASHINGTON—Congress officially acknowledged last week that the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, and the forced deportation of nearly half a million others, constituted genocide.
Turkey protested, with a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying the recognition could “endanger the future of our bilateral relations.” President Donald Trump has so far continued the long-standing U.S. policy of not acknowledging the killings as genocide. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a brief statement Tuesday that the administration’s “position … has not changed.” Trump last described the event as “mass atrocities” on April 24, Armenian Remembrance Day.
Armenians and their supporters have pushed for years to get the international community to recognize the 1915 genocide as a matter of justice for the victims.
At a congressional hearing in 2015, Taner Akcam, a professor of Armenian Genocide studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., told lawmakers, “The past has always been the present in the Middle East. Insecurity felt by different groups as a result of events that occurred in history is one of the central problems in the region.”
Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion in A.D. 301. But after the Ottoman Empire conquered the region in the 16th century, the government treated Armenians as second-class citizens. For a while they were able to practice Christianity and follow their own cultural practices, but tension rose between them and government leaders who wanted to rid the country of religious minorities.
In 1915, the government empowered special killing squads to carry out brutal techniques against Armenians and other minorities—tactics later copied by Nazi Germany. They included mass starvation, killings, tortures, and rapes.
In 1948, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in response to the Holocaust. The agreement created avenues to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide and bring its perpetrators to justice, but many nations have been reluctant to follow through. Turkey, a member of NATO and the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, denies the genocide occurred and claims the deaths resulted from a civil war. Meanwhile, the nation continues to persecute religious minorities.
Turkish authorities arrested American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson (WORLD’s 2018 Daniel of the Year) in 2014 and held him on phony charges for almost two years. They continue to make it difficult for Christians to worship freely by destroying centuries-old churches or even converting them into horse stables, restrooms, and discos. Today, Christians in Turkey make up less than 1 percent of the population.
“While we’re happy with some of the good measures the [Trump] administration has taken toward Middle Eastern Christians’ religious liberty in this region, this recognition of genocide is a vital test: Are we going to put our rhetoric into action here?” asked Steven Howard, the national outreach director with In Defense of Christians.
Aram Hamparian, executive director for the Armenian National Committee of America, said he thinks the Turkish government’s recent actions motivated Congress to finally acknowledge the genocide. In addition to its detaining of Brunson, Turkey has come under heavy criticism from NATO allies for its military incursion in Syria and its purchase of a Russian missile system. A U.S. Senate committee recently approved a measure to impose more sanctions on Turkey, a clear sign of Congress souring on the relationship.
“U.S. recognition is a major step toward ending Turkey’s denial; ending Turkey’s obstruction of justice,” Hamparian said, adding that Armenia, a country of just under 3 million people, will never feel safe next to Turkey: “It’s like living next door to the person who burned down your house; you’re not going to sleep very well.”
He called on Trump to sign the resolution acknowledging the genocide.
“Today, every part of American civil society—all call it the Armenian Genocide, no question marks,” Hamparian said. “There is one veto left—the last veto—that of the president. The irony is that Trump ran for office as someone defending religious liberty and freedom in the Middle East.”