Armenian Genocide Remembrances, Disappointment

April 24, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Armenians around the world are in a day of mourning to mark what they call the genocide of 1915. Here in the Central Valley, they're frustrated with President Obama because he stopped referring to the mass killings as genocide as soon as he became president.

But on Thursday, Armenians went straight to the halls of government to remind reticent politicians of what their ancestors endured.

A march through downtown Fresno led Armenians to City Hall and recognition of their collective sorrow. At a ceremony marking the massacre, City Council member Andreas Borgeas read from a proclamation: "The mayor and city council proclamation is hereby awarded for the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day," he said.

City leaders joined Congressman Jim Costa in acknowledging the deaths of more than 1.5 million Armenians 94 years ago, in the country now known as Turkey.

But Armenians are looking for recognition on a bigger stage. They want to hear it from the president, but they were disappointed Thursday.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama didn't shy away from using the word 'genocide'. "There was a genocide that did take place against the Armenian people," he said in February 2008, in one of the many times he referred to the massacre as a 'genocide' while he was a candidate.

But President Obama stopped short of using the word in recognizing the deaths Thursday. He called it "one of the great atrocities of the 20th century" and said "I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed."

"He needs to explain to the people of the United States why he said that when he was a candidate and why it didn't happen now," said Fresno State Armenian studies professor Barlow der Mugrdechian.

Armenians honored the victims by laying flowers at the foot of a martyr's monument at Fresno State.

They call the massacre the first modern genocide and say forgetting would open the door to new genocides as it did in Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler cited the Armenian killings as forgotten.

"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians," he is quoted as saying as he prepared to commit atrocities against the Jews of Europe.

The Turks say the war crimes are being exaggerated. "There isn't any disputing that crimes of some sort occurred during that time," said Bruce Fein of the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund. "But there are gradations of crime."

And political analysts say it's easy to explain Mr. Obama's change of heart. They say the U.S. needs Turkey as an ally ? in NATO, in Iraq, and as a bridge to other Muslim nations.

"Turkey is a military asset to the U.S.," said Nick Antazo, who took part in the march to Fresno's City Hall. "That does not make it right. I still feel like my people are being walked upon for almost 100 years."

A bill in the U.S. House right now calls on the president to declare the deaths a genocide.

A similar bill passed a House committee two years ago, but former President Bush opposed it and it died on the House floor.

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