President Biden on Saturday called the killing of Armenians during World War I a genocide, an unprecedented designation sure to anger NATO ally Turkey.
“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today,” Mr. Biden said in a statement on Armenian Remembrance Day. “We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history. And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.”
The move is certain to anger Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has warned previous administrations that a genocide declaration would harm U.S.-Turkey relations.
In response, Turkey’s foreign ministry said Mr. Biden’s statement was politically motivated and lacked any “scholarly and legal basis.”
“The nature of the events of 1915 does not change according to the current political motives of the politicians or domestic political considerations. Such an attitude serves only a vulgar distortion of history,” the ministry said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted: “We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past.”
Mr. Biden told Mr. Erdogan in a phone call on Friday that he wants “a constructive bilateral relationship with expanded areas of cooperation and effective management of disagreements,” the White House said.
Mr. Erdogan had good rapport with former President Donald Trump and had been hoping for a reset despite past friction with Mr. Biden.
The Turkish leader reiterated his long-running claims that the U.S. is supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria who are affiliated with the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. The PKK has led an insurgency against Turkey for more than three decades.
In recent years, Turkey has launched military operations against PKK enclaves in Turkey and in northern Iraq and against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters. The State Department has designated the PKK a terrorist organization but has argued with Turkey over the group’s ties to the Syrian Kurds.
According to the Turkish government statement after the call, Mr. Erdogan also raised concerns about the presence in the United States of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Turkey of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup attempt. Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s, denies involvement in the coup.
As a presidential candidate last year, Mr. Biden promised to make the designation of a genocide if elected. Previous administrations have not taken the step, in the interest of maintaining good relations with Turkey, a key ally in the Middle East.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) said Mr. Biden’s move “effectively ended the longest-lasting foreign gag-rule in American history.”
“President Biden‘s principled stand on the Armenian genocide today – powerfully overriding Ankara’s foreign veto against honest American remembrance of this crime - pivots America toward the justice deserved and the security required for the future of the Armenian nation – a landlocked, blockaded, genocide-survivor state,” said ANCA Chairman Raffi Hamparian.
Armenians say that up to 1.5 million died when the Ottoman Turks moved to deport them beginning in 1915 to a region in Syria.
The Senate passed a resolution in 2019 that recognized Turkey‘s genocide of the Armenian people, but the Trump administration said the move did not change the U.S. position on the subject.
Former President Trump in 2019 called the killings “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century,” but stopped short of designating a genocide.
Mr. Biden said of the Armenians who survived, “most were forced to find new homes and new lives around the world, including in the United States.”
“With strength and resilience, the Armenian people survived and rebuilt their community,” the president said. “Today, as we mourn what was lost, let us also turn our eyes to the future—toward the world that we wish to build for our children. A world unstained by the daily evils of bigotry and intolerance, where human rights are respected, and where all people are able to pursue their lives in dignity and security.”
In Armenia on Saturday, people streamed to the hilltop complex in Yerevan, the capital, that memorializes the victims. Many laid flowers around the eternal flame, creating a wall of blooms two meters (seven feet) high.
Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Avet Adonts, speaking at the memorial before Mr. Biden issued his proclamation, said a U.S. president using the term genocide would “serve as an example for the rest of the civilized world.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, praised Mr. Biden for following through on his pledge.
“For Armenian-Americans and everyone who believes in human rights and the truth, today marks an historic milestone: President Biden has defied Turkish threats and recognized the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians for what it was — the first genocide of the 20th Century,” Mr. Schiff said in a statement.
This article is based in part on wire-service reports.