INTERVIEW – Turkey’s Armenians pray for reconciliation

INTERVIEW-Turkey’s Armenians pray for reconciliation
By Ayla Jean Yackley

ISTANBUL, April 21 (Reuters) – Turkey’s Armenians will quietly mark
the 90th anniversary of massacres in eastern Turkey with prayers for
reconciliation between their two estranged homelands, their spiritual
leader said on Thursday.

While more than a million people in Armenia are expected to commemorate
the start of what they say was a genocide against their people at the
hands of Ottoman Turks, April 24 will pass without official ceremony
in Turkey.

Turkey denies a systematic campaign to wipe out Armenians and says
intercommunal strife during World War One claimed hundreds of thousands
of Turkish as well as Armenian lives.

“We pray for peace and reconciliation between Turkish and Armenian
people. We pray for the wisdom of those in positions of power so they
can find ways of reconciliation,” said Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II
in a written response to questions.

Armenia and Turkey share a border but no diplomatic ties. That
stalemate has squeezed Turkey’s tiny community of 65,000 Armenians,
who are often perceived as a kind of fifth column.

European officials have called on Turkey, which aspires to join the EU,
to open the border. Such an overture “would be a sign of determination
to engage in dialogue,” Mesrob said.

Turkey has instead devoted most of its efforts to fighting the
influential Armenian diaspora’s campaign to convince foreign
governments to acknowledge the massacres as genocide.

Several national parliaments, including Poland’s this week, have
passed laws recognising the genocide. Some European politicians have
gone further and said Turkey must admit wrongdoing before beginning
EU entry talks later this year.

There are signs Turkey may take a new approach towards an issue that
has been strictly taboo until now. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan last
month called for an international probe, saying he was confident it
would support Turkey’s stance.

Mesrob cautiously welcomed the recent discussion.

“Debate of any issue means a process of education has begun .. The
Armenian citizens of Turkey are between two fires, since whatever
they . say is misinterpreted by both sides,” he said.

The EU has said interference in running Armenian schools and churches
threaten the community’s distinct identity. The state appoints Muslim
bureaucrats to oversee cash-strapped Armenian schools and has seized
hundreds of millions of dollars worth of church property, which Mesrob
said remains “a major issue”.

While Armenians may link their survival in Turkey to the EU bid,
fears persist the historical issues dividing Armenians and Turks may
be too big a gulf to bridge.

“The upgrading of laws and regulations (to meet EU criteria) will
naturally benefit all citizens,” Mesrob said. “We hope the government
will be at an equal distance to all citizens and communities regardless
of their religions or ethnic background.”

04/21/05 22:59 ET

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