President Obama's decision to not use the term "genocide" later this week when he commemorates the mass killings of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks prompted strong rebukes from activists Tuesday.
Large commemorations are planned for Friday, the 100th anniversary of the massacres in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished under a crackdown by the Ottoman government after World War I that included mass executions and so-called death marches through the Syrian desert.
The mass killings are considered by most to be the first genocide of the 20th century despite strong objections by modern-day Turkey, which contends activists have inflated the number of people killed and the circumstances of their deaths.
But as he has avoided doing every year since taking office, Obama decided to avoid using the term genocide in his address commemorating the atrocities on Friday, infuriating activists who called the decision "a betrayal of trust" and "national disgrace."
As a presidential candidate, Obama called the mass killings "genocide" and supported the U.S. officially using the term when referring to the event. So when Obama took the White House, hope was high among Armenian-American groups that their years-long effort for official U.S. recognition was near.
However, the realities of running the free world soon set in. Turkey spends a significant amount of resources each year lobbying other governments to reject the "genocide" label. And its position as an important NATO ally in an unstable region of the world makes diplomatic fallout a top concern among Western allies.
When Pope Francis last week urged the international community to recognize the massacre — which occurred from 1915 to 1918 — as "the first genocide of the 20th century," Turkey reacted with vigor, recalling its ambassador in tandem with issuing strongly worded rebukes.
Pope Francis' use of the term genocide — in which he compared the mass killings to the slaughters carried out by the Nazis and Soviets — had raised hope that Obama might follow suit.
But in a statement issued Tuesday, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said that in a meeting with Armenian-American leaders, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes had pledged that the U.S. would instead use the 100th commemoration "to urge a full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts that we believe is in the interest of all parties."
She also noted that Obama had asked Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew to lead a delegation to Yerevan on April 24 to "stand in solidarity with the Armenian people as they commemorate this most solemn of anniversaries."
But for proponents of official recognition — something many other nations have done — the gestures were clearly not enough.
Ken Hachikian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America, issued a statement Tuesday calling the decision "a betrayal of trust."
"President Obama's surrender to Turkey represents a national disgrace," he said. "It is, very simply, a betrayal of truth, a betrayal of trust."
Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California who has been leading the effort in Congress to officially recognize the genocide, also released a statement saying he was "deeply disappointed."
"How long must the victims and their families wait before our nation has the courage to confront Turkey with the truth about the murderous past of the Ottoman Empire?" he said. "If not this president, who spoke so eloquently and passionately about recognition in the past, whom? If not after one hundred years, when?"
Jason Wells is deputy news director for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Jason Wells at email@example.com.
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