Today marks the 100th anniversary of the slaughter of more than 1 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, people around the world have remembered the lives lost through vigils, memorials and wreath-laying ceremonies.
The anniversary also has revived the debate over whether the mass killings should be called “genocide.”
The deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks, who were concerned about their allegiance during the war, began on April 24, 1915, with the arrests of 250 Armenian community leaders in Constantinople and continued with the systematic killing of males and the deportation of women and children. Armenia and other countries recognize it as the first genocide of the 20th century, but Turkey has long denied the term “genocide,” saying the deaths were inflated and due to a civil war that killed many Turks as well.
Pope Francis called it a genocide during an Armenian rite service at St. Peter’s Basilica in Italy on April 12 to mark the anniversary, prompting condemnation from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a recall of Turkey’s envoy from the Vatican.
The European Parliament rose to the pope’s defense, and days later approved a resolution — similar to one in 1987 — calling the mass killings of Armenians a “genocide.”
The White House avoided the sensitive term in a statement issued Thursday for Armenian Remembrance Day, instead calling the events of 1915 “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century.”
The statement said in part: “A full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts is in all our interests. Peoples and nations grow stronger, and build a foundation for a more just and tolerant future, by acknowledging and reckoning with painful elements of the past. We welcome the expression of views by Pope Francis, Turkish and Armenian historians, and the many others who have sought to shed light on this dark chapter of history.”
Others, like Armenian-American artist Jackie Kazarian, want to focus on the survivors. Her grandparents were born in historic Armenia in what is now eastern Turkey. Their escape and move to the United States in the early 20th century motivated the Chicago-based painter to create a massive work of art, 27 feet wide and 11.5 feet tall, to commemorate the centennial but not its sorrow.
“What happened in 1915 is horrific, but there are a lot of people and artists who have already captured the terror of what happened, so I’m really interested in doing something else … celebrating the culture and the vitality of Armenian people that survived,” she says in a video about her work.