Armenian Americans celebrated President Joe Biden’s decision to formally recognize the massacre of Armenians during World War I as genocide, but the declaration infuriated Ankara, which accused the United States of trying to rewrite history.
Biden on April 24 became the first U.S. president to use the word genocide in a formal statement, and it was issued on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the start of the massacre in 1915 as the Ottoman Empire unraveled.
The American people honor “all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today,” Biden said.
“Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history,” Biden said. “We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
The White House had avoided using the term genocide for decades for fear of alienating Turkey, a NATO ally and important power in the Middle East. But Biden had promised during his presidential campaign that if elected he would take the largely symbolic step.
Hundreds of people streamed to a hilltop monument in Montebello, California, about 16 kilometers east of downtown Los Angeles, a U.S. hub of the Armenian diaspora, to mark Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
They laid flowers at the monument and recalled relatives who died in the slaughter and deportation of as many as 1.5 million Armenians — a Christian minority in the predominately Muslim empire.
Ankara insists the deaths were a result of civil strife rather than a planned Ottoman government effort to annihilate Armenians. Turkey also claims fewer Armenians died than has been reported.
Turkey’s angry reaction put the government and most of the opposition in rare unity.
“Words cannot change or rewrite history,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted moments after Biden announced his decision. “We will not take lessons from anyone on our history.”
Cavusoglu said Turkey “entirely rejects” the U.S. decision which he said was based “solely on populism,” while the opposition denounced it as a “major mistake.”
A Foreign Ministry statement issued separately said: “It is clear that the said statement does not have a scholarly and legal basis, nor is it supported by any evidence.”
The ministry later summoned U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield to express its displeasure, noting that Biden’s decision caused “a wound in relations that is difficult to repair,” the Anadolu state news agency reported.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was less strident in his response, sending a message to the Armenian community and patriarch of the Armenian church calling on him not to allow “the culture of coexistence of Turks and Armenians…to be forgotten.”
The issue has been “politicized by third parties and turned into a tool of intervention against our country,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan and Biden agreed during a phone call on April 23 to hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June in Brussels. Biden placed the call – his first as president to Erdogan — in an apparent attempt to soften the blow of his decision.
Biden’s message was met with “great enthusiasm” by the people of Armenia and Armenians worldwide, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian wrote in a letter to the U.S. president.
Pashinian in a post on Facebook thanked Biden for “the powerful step towards justice and invaluable support for the descendants of the Armenian genocide victims.”