Erdogan Draws Veil Over Genocide Claims With Gallipoli Commemoration

Battle of Gallipoli
Britain's Prince Charles walks in front of the Turkish Memorial before a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, in Gallipoli April 24, 2015. Osman Orsal/REUTERS

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plans for a showcase centenary celebration of the Gallipoli campaign suffered a major setback on yesterday night when the German president Joachim Gauck joined forces with the Pope to describe the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as "genocide".

As the lone piper's notes echo across Anzac Cove at dawn tomorrow (Sat 25th) to mark the very moment that Australian and New Zealand troops waded ashore amidst a hail of bullets and shrapnel, the Turkish president will be hoping that the world's attention will focus on his famous victory over the Allies rather than the murder of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by his Ottoman forebears, which began 100 years ago today. His country has always disputed the term 'genocide' arguing that there were equal casualties on both sides.

"The fate of the Armenians stands as exemplary in the history of mass exterminations, ethnic cleansing, deportations and yes, genocide, which marked the 20th century in such a terrible way," announced Gauck at a service of remembrance at Berlin's Armenian Cathedral. Earlier on the same day the Armenian Church canonised the victims at a special service at the Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. It is the first time in 400 years that the church has used its rite of beatification.

President Erdogan has recently stirred up outrage by changing the dates of the Gallipoli celebrations in what has been interpreted as an attempt to bury the Armenian commemoration. Normally the Turks celebrate their victory at Gallipoli on 18th March (the first day of the 1915 Naval operation), while ANZAC Day, which commemorates the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps on the peninsula, is celebrated on 25th April.

But this year, for the first time, the celebrations were brought forward 24 hours and spread over two days. Boris Adjemian, the French historian and curator of the Armenian library in Paris, told Newsweek that there is no doubt that the intention of the Turkish government was to minimalise the importance of the genocide commemorations in Yerevan. Erdogan even invited the Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan to Gallipoli on 24th April, the very day of the genocide commemorations.

The Gallipoli event, to which 100 heads of state were invited, has been snubbed by the White House and the Vatican, while other nations have downgraded the diplomatic importance of the event. In 2013 it came to light that severe diplomatic pressure was put upon Australia and New Zealand not to recognise the genocide in order for them to guarantee space for 10,500 people at an event which has assumed great historical importance in the Antipodes.

A further setback for Erdogan is the high-profile presence of Russian president Putin and French president François Hollande, who are in the Armenian capital for the service. "We will never forget the tragedy that has befallen your people," said president Hollande in a moving speech delivered at the genocide memorial complex in Yerevan today.

"The centenary of the Armenian genocide is a call for peace and reconciliation. Turkey has made some progress in recognising this, but we await more," said the French president.

"Commemorating a genocide does not mean opening a trial," Hollande continued. "It is more about bringing to light the suffering and pain of the survivors. In the Middle East, as I speak, another process of eradication is underway. This complex mosaic of people and religion has become a target."

He drew parallels between the Armenian genocide and the outrages being perpetrated by Islamic State, and called for the protection of "all minorities, especially the eastern Christians."

"Every time Christians are killed for being Christian, Jews for being Jewish, Muslims for being Muslim, France feels the pain," concluded Hollande. France officially recognised the Armenian genocide by passing a law in January 2001.

As the UK royals Prince Charles and Prince Harry stepped onto the Gallipoli peninsula this morning, along with heads of state and dignitaries of other global powers to pay their respects to the fallen, further demands were mounting throughout the world for official recognition for Armenian victims.

In Turkey, France was represented by the minister of defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, along with Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and New Zealand prime minister, John Key, both of whom declined to send a representative to Yerevan.

The U.S. ambassador, John Bass, was in Gallipoli while treasury secretary Jacob Lew was in Yerevan. The UK delegation is headed by Prince Charles and Prince Harry, along with John Whittingdale, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Committee, plus ambassador Richard Moore. And while president Putin was in Armenia, the Duma's speaker, Sergey Naryshkin, was in Turkey.

In the campaign for recognition, recent victories – in addition to the Pope, the German president and the European Parliament – include Kim Kardashian, the Armenian-American socialite whose Twitter following is not to be underestimated.

In the U.S. 43 states have officially recognised the genocide, but the pledge made by president Obama to recognise it when he was senator, has never materialized so far at the federal level. The United Kingdom and Israel have not recognized the genocide either. In total, only 24 states have recognized it.

The Pope's intervention is undoubtedly the most important. In a new book by Franca Giansoldati, the venerable Vatican correspondent of the Italian daily, Il Messaggero, Erdogan "begged" Pope Francis, at a meeting last November, to refrain from openly referring to the Ottoman Empire's massacre as genocide.

But on 12th April this year Pope Francis, on reflection, decided publicly to describe the killings. A vote in the European Parliament three days later commended the statement and called for Turkey to recognise the genocide. Erdogan recalled his ambassador from the Holy See for consultation and responded: "It is not possible for Turkey to accept such a crime, such a sin."

Turkey argues that 500,000 Armenians died of disease and starvation on their way to Syria after being deported for siding with the Russians against the Ottomans in WWI. Survivors deny this, saying the number was nearer 1.5 million, and that they were murdered. Acceptance of the genocide interpretation has gained worldwide credibility, but in Turkey disagreeing with the official line perceived as a crime.

Eight years ago Hrant Dink, a Turkish newspaper editor of Armenian extraction, was shot dead. It was later said that the assassination was linked to revelations he had made in 2004 that Kemal Ataturk's adopted daughter, Sabiha Gokcen, was an Armenian who had been orphaned during the genocide. It is now being claimed that the killing, to avenge the memory of Turkey's founding father, was orchestrated by rogue security officials.

Some say that public opinion in Turkey differs radically with Erdogan's line. More than 100,000 turned out for Dink's funeral. It was seen as the beginning of the collapse of blanket denial and since then books such as Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian, which details the horrors, are now available in Turkish. Thousands of Turks are expected to gather on Taksim square in Istanbul tonight in remembrance of the genocide.

Others say that Erdogan's decision to give back confiscated properties to the Armenian Church, his offer of condolence to the Armenians and the fact that he is fielding Armenian candidates in winnable seats in the June elections, shows that his own line is perceptibly softening.

But as he watches the heir to the British throne lay a wreath at the Helles memorial in Gallipoli, as the cameras of the world zoom in on his features, he will be feeling more than the heat of a spring day in the Dardanelles. The manicured greenwards which connect the 31 immaculate war memorials on the Gallipoli peninsula will never obscure the hell that was 1915, when 130,000 young men went to their graves on the battlefield.