YEREVAN, Armenia — Armenian officials and dignitaries gathered here Friday to recognize the 100th anniversary of what historians and a growing number of world leaders have called the first genocide of the 20th century.
On an ashen gray day in the capital, Yerevan, punctuated by driving rain, President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia was joined by international delegations that included President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President François Hollande of France at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex, the country’s main monument to the roughly 1.5 million people killed by the Ottoman Turks a century ago.
The complex includes an eternal flame, which was ringed by multicolored flowers, and a 144-foot-tall granite stele, split by a crevice as a symbol of the losses of the Armenian people.
As Hollande arrived and walked toward the soaring stone spike, he paused to shake hands solemnly with Sargsyan, then placed a yellow rose into a memorial wreath. Putin followed in similar fashion, pumping Sargsyan’s hand heartily.
Sargsyan, in his opening remarks, described the killing of Armenians as “unprecedented in terms of volume and ramifications” at that point in history.
“The western part of the Armenian people, who for millenniums had lived in their homeland, in the cradle of their civilization, were displaced and annihilated under a state-devised plan,” Sargsyan said, “with direct participation of the army, police, other state institutions, and gangs comprising criminals released from the prisons specifically for this purpose.”
“Around 1.5 million human beings were slaughtered merely for being Armenian,” he said.
Turkey, a NATO ally, still fiercely denies that the killings and forced exiles that began in 1915 and created what is now one of the world’s largest diasporas amounted to genocide.
It is a position so vital to Turkey that it is widely understood that countries adopting that term risk putting their relations with the country in jeopardy. Some world leaders, including President Obama, pointedly declined to use the word genocide in expressing their condolences.
In appointing the secretary of the Treasury, Jacob J. Lew, to lead the US delegation to Yerevan, the White House referred to the ceremony as the “Centennial Commemoration of the Events of 1915.”
The description was euphemistic enough perhaps to satisfy President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey but a grave disappointment to Armenians who had hoped Obama would make good on his promise as a presidential candidate to recognize the killings as genocide.
In a statement Friday, Obama called the killings of Armenians “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century,” adding that “the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths.”
He also suggested that the absence of the word genocide in his statement was an official position but not a reflection of his own personal beliefs. “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” Obama said.
By now, with the facts well established, it is largely a semantic debate that Turkey seems to be losing. Pope Francis, for instance, this year called the killings of Armenians the “first genocide of the 20th century.” Even some people in Turkey have called for recognition and reconciliation given the increasingly settled world opinion.
Still, in an apparent bid to distract from the centennial events in Yerevan and around the world, Turkey brought forward by one day an annual commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I, normally held on April 25. The battle is of particular significance to Australia and New Zealand, which lost many soldiers there.
The dueling commemorations presented a challenge for some countries with close ties to Turkey and Armenia, particularly Russia, which decided to send Putin to Yerevan and Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the lower house of Parliament, to Turkey.