The right thing to do: Majority of Parliamentarians, If Not the Feds

Ottawa Citizen
April 23, 2004 Friday Final Edition

The right thing to do: At least a majority of parliamentarians, if
not the federal government, is willing to acknowledge this crime
against humanity

by: Michael Petrou

In the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, city employees work diligently to
convert centuries-old church steeples into mosque minarets.

Nearby lie the haunting ruins of the Armenian Surpagab Kilesi church.
Once the place of worship for thousands of Armenians who used to live
here, it is now home to the last family of Armenians in Diyarbakir.
They live in a small building adjacent to the ruined courtyard.

Tens of thousands of other Armenians from Diyarbakir and surrounding
towns were murdered in 1915 by Ottoman Turks as part of a systematic
genocide directed against the Armenians of Anatolia. Thousands more
were deported, usually to starve to death in the desert or to be
gang-raped and murdered by Ottoman soldiers and marauding Kurds. As
many as 1.5 million died.

The modern Turkish authorities have not yet destroyed all of the
Armenian churches in Diyarbakir, or converted them all into mosques,
but perhaps one day they will. They have been working for decades to
cover up the crimes of their Ottoman predecessors. And Wednesday
night they got help from Canada’s Liberal government.

A private member’s motion acknowledging and condemning the Armenian
genocide was passed by a majority of MPs sitting in the House of
Commons in a non-binding free vote.

The motion read simply: “This House acknowledges the Armenian
genocide of 1915 and condemns this act as a crime against humanity.”

But the government opposed the motion, and even issued a press
release shortly after the vote reiterating its position that the mass
murders, deportations and ethnic cleansings were “tragic,” but
avoided any reference to the term “genocide.”

Many Liberals honourably broke rank with their party and supported
the motion. Prime Minister Paul Martin, who never met a contentious
issue he couldn’t avoid taking a stand on, was absent for the debate
and vote.

Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham concluded his statement with
what can only be described as cynicism or gross ignorance, suggesting
the issue should be resolved by Armenian and Turkish governments and

The Turkish government has already made it clear how it believes the
issue should be “resolved.” Countries that acknowledge the genocide
are frozen out of economic deals, as was France in 2001.

Turks who discuss the genocide are likewise punished. Four years ago,
Father Yusuf Akbulut, an Assyrian priest in Diyarbakir, told a
newspaper that Assyrian Christians were also slaughtered during the
Armenian genocide — a historical fact — and was promptly arrested
and labeled a national traitor in the Turkish press.

As for academic experts, Turkey regularly funds professorships at
universities abroad. And try getting permission to access Ottoman
archives in Turkey if you don’t toe the correct line.

Turkey is not interested in resolving the issue, only distorting it
or pretending it never happened. Mr. Graham must know this. And yet
he appears more concerned with potential contracts for Canadian
companies in Turkey than with acknowledging a monstrous crime for
what it is.

Genocide denial is not resolution. Indeed in some countries it is a
crime — but not, it would seem, in Canada, at least when the
genocide in question involves the Armenians.

Some well-meaning people object to the use of the term genocide to
describe the massacre of Armenians in Anatolia because they fear
using the term too loosely will rob the word of its meaning and will
dilute the impact of other genocides in history — most notably Nazi
Germany’s attempted destruction of European Jewry.

But the definition of genocide is the mass extermination of a people,
and this is exactly what happened to the Armenians of Asia Minor.

It is no coincidence that Adolf Hitler, the very architect of the
world’s most terrible genocide, recalled the Armenians’ fate prior to
his own assault on Poland, while urging his military commanders to be
merciless toward all men, women and children of the “Polish race or

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
he asked, rhetorically of course, because nobody did.

And while too many Israeli politicians have avoided calling the
Armenian genocide a genocide, in part to avoid offending Israel’s
stalwart ally Turkey, in 2000 the then-Israeli education minister,
Yossi Sarid, stood with the Armenians of Jerusalem on their day of
remembrance. He affirmed that they too had suffered genocide.

“For many years, too many years, you were alone on your memorial
day,” he said.

“I am aware of the special significance of my presence here today
along with other Israelis. Today, perhaps for the first time, you are
less alone.”

The Armenians are less alone today in their efforts to have a
national tragedy acknowledged and remembered.

New scholars have persevered against Turkish obstructionism, and the
steady accumulation of historical evidence is undeniable and

While visiting Diyarbakir last year, I met Turks and Kurds who spoke
openly about the massacres of 1915. They know more than even their
own government will publicly admit.

Wednesday night, a majority of our parliamentarians chose to
acknowledge and condemn the 20th century’s first genocide for what it
was. Our government, however, preferred to abandon the genocide’s

The slaughter of the Anatolian Armenians was genocide. Denying this
is tragic.

Michael Petrou is a PhD student at the University of Oxford.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Chris Mikula, the ottawa Citizen; Recognizing the
armenian genocide: NOT LISTENING: Despite annual demonstrations in
many capital cities, including this one in Ottawa, that urge
governments to condemn the 1915 genocide directed against Armenians,
Canada still refuses to do so.