ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkish President Abdullah Gul distanced himself on Thursday from criticism by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan over an apology by 200 Turkish intellectuals for what they call the “Great Catastrophe of 1915.”
"The president’s view is that the fact that the issue is discussed freely in academic and public circles is proof of the presence of democratic discussion in Turkey," a statement from Gul’s office said.
The effort, initiated by a number of prominent Turkish academics and writers and launched on Monday, has garnered unprecedented participation from the Turkish public, who joined the scholars in support of this initiative.
But as of Thursday, the 73 pages that list the more than 13,000 signatories on www.ozurdiliyoruz.com have been deleted from the site and no more signatures can be submitted.
On Wednesday, Erdogan said the campaign had no other benefit than "stirring up trouble, disturbing our peace and undoing the steps which have been taken".
Gul, a moderate former member of the ruling AK Party, was foreign minister under Erdogan until he was elected to the largely ceremonial post of president in July 2007. Media reports have speculated the two men have grown apart.
Turks, including Nobel-winning author Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted in the European Union candidate country for affirming that the mass killings of Armenia’s in 1915 amount to genocide. Turkey denies the genocide, claiming that Muslim Turks also died in inter-ethnic conflicts.
The apology, which avoids the word genocide and uses instead the term great catastrophe, threatens to reignite a controversy that challenges the ideological foundations of modern Turkey. It comes at a time of heightened nationalism in Turkey.
The staunchly nationalist opposition MHP party condemned the campaign, saying Turkey had "no crime to apologize about". "Nobody has the right to demand apology by distorting history and smearing our ancestors by portraying them as criminals," the party said in statement.
Organizers said the initiative, posted on the Internet (www.ozurdiliyoruz.com) along with a non-binding petition to gather signatures, was meant to allow Turks to offer a personal apology and to end an official silence.
Gul became the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia in September. Several meetings between Turkish and Armenian officials have followed. Turkey’s denial of the Genocide, however, continues to irritate the process for normalizing ties.