ISTANBUL (RFE/RL)–Prominent Turkish intellectuals have urged their countrymen to join them in marking on Saturday the 95th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire with a silent protest in Istanbul.
“We call upon all peoples of Turkey who share this heartfelt pain to commemorate and pay tribute to the victims of 1915. In black, in silence. With candles and flowers,” they said in an online petition signed by dozens of other Turks.
“For this is OUR pain. This is a mourning for ALL OF US,” reads the petition posted at http://buacihepimizin.org/.
The gathering, if it is allowed by the Turkish authorities, will take place in Istanbul’s central Taksim square and mark the first-ever public commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey.
The unprecedented action was initiated by renowned intellectuals challenging the official Turkish version of those events, which claims that the Armenian death toll is inflated and denies a premeditated government effort to exterminate the Armenian population of the crumbling empire. The signatories include journalist Ali Bayramoglu, historians Halil Berktay and Taner Akcam, and other scholars such as Cengiz Aktar and Baskin Oran.
The petition stops short of calling the massacres a genocide, using instead the Armenian phrase “Great Catastrophe.” “In 1915, when we had a population of only 13 million people, there were 1.5 to 2 million Armenians living on this land,” it says, adding: “They were the grocer in our neighborhood, our tailor, our goldsmith, our carpenter, our shoemaker, our farmhand, our millwright, our classmate, our teacher, our officer, our private, our deputy, our historian, our composer…
“Our friend. Our next-door neighbors and our companion in bad times. In Thrace, in the Aegean, in Adana, in Malatya, in Van, in Kars…In Samatya, in Sisli, in the Islands, in Galata…
“On April 24th, 1915 they were ‘rounded up.’ We lost them. They are not here anymore. A great majority of them do not exist anymore. Nor do their graveyards. There EXISTS the overwhelming ‘Great Pain’ that was laid upon the qualms of our conscience by the ‘Great Catastrophe.’ It’s been getting deeper and deeper for the last 95 years.”
Thousands of Turks signed a similar online petition that was initiated by mostly the same public figures in December 2008. It offered Armenians a personal apology and called for the Turkish government to acknowledge the killings.
Turkish prosecutors threatened to bring criminal charges against the authors of the appeal under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which criminalizes “insulting the Turkish people.”
The Turkish government has scrambled in recent weeks to prevent further progress of a U.S. congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. It has also pressed U.S. President Barack Obama to again avoid using the word “genocide” in a statement on the massacre anniversary due on April 24.
Obama has been receiving diametrically opposite messages from leaders of the influential Armenian community in the United States as well as pro-Armenian U.S. lawmakers. More than a dozen members of the U.S. Senate have signed this week a letter calling on him “to stand on the right side of history and unequivocally affirm the Armenian Genocide.”
“While we fully acknowledge the importance of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, we should never, for any reason, fail to call a tragedy of this magnitude by its rightful name,” the senators said.