LONDON (combined sources)–Britain runs the risk of a diplomatic split with Turkey after the government’s belated decision to invite an Armenian delegation to this weekend’s Holocaust Memorial Day.
With only 48 hours to go before the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister remember the millions who died in the worst atrocities of the past century–the event has become embroiled in controversy.
Historians believe that up to 1.5 million Armenian civilians were killed in 1915. The Foreign Office accepts that the massacres took place–but insists that they do not qualify as genocide. Turkey has refused to acknowledge that there were any massacres of Armenian civilians–despite compelling evidence from the time.
The invitation to the Armenia’s to take part in an event alongside other victims of genocide is being regarded–therefore–as an important victory that could signal a change in British government policy.
Originally the Armenia’s were excluded from the ceremony on Saturday on the ground that it was intended only to commemorate events during and after the Second World War. Most of the ceremony will be dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews killed by Hitler. Speakers will also remember those who died in the genocides of Cambodia and Rwanda–and in the Balkans.
"We have to set some sort of limit to this event," a Home Office spokesman’said. "The Second World War seemed to be the right place to start."
However–an angry response from Armenia’s and their influential supporters persuaded the Home Office to reconsider. In the past few days it has invited a delegation of about 20 Armenia’s–including two survivors of the 1915 massacres–Yervant Shekerdemian and Anig Bodossian. Although invited as members of the "community" and not direct participants–there is little doubt that they will make their presence felt.
Victims of the Armenian slaughter — which preceded the Holocaust by 24 years — will be acknowledged in a 15-minute introduction to a British Broadcasting Corporation television documentary on genocide to be aired on the day of the remembrance.
Stephen Smith–director of Beth Shalom Holocaust Center–argues that calling the Armenian genocide by any other name would mean "allowing us to be persuaded by the argument of those who would deny that the genocide occurred at all."
He added: "History is greater than our temporary interpretation of it and one day it will be called the genocide because the historical facts bear that out."
Privately–one official involved in the planning for the Holocaust remembrance said some British government officials–wary of angering Turkey–have tread a fine line between doing what they felt was morally right–and diplomatically appropriate.
"I think the government and the committee have gone out of their way to show that there is a real concern for the victims of the Armenian genocide," said the official–who requested anonymity. "But there is a political sticking point the government still has to deal with."
Such recognition is unlikely to pass without reaction from Turkey–particularly because it had been assured by the Foreign Office that the Armenia’s were being excluded.
Britain is concerned that it could become involved in a costly dispute–similar to the one being waged between Paris and Ankara.
Turkish officials said that they would be watching events in London closely and would respond accordingly.
Despite the announcement of the inclusion of the Armenian genocide–Britain’s junior environment minister Beverly Hughes said Wednesday–"the Armenia’s will definitely not be mentioned on Memorial Day. It will only focus on the Holocaust." She made the statement while on a visit to Istanbul–the Anatolia news agency reported.
She explained that after reviewing evidence relating to the Armenian massacres during 1915 and 1916–the London government had decided that the incidents did not fit into the United Nations’ description of genocide.
"This is the position of the British government and it will not change," she added.
It looks like it has changed.