Saturday, September 24, 2005

ISTANBUL — Turkish scholars at a twice-canceled conference on the massacre of Armenians in the early 20th century cautiously discussed the politically charged topic yesterday, avoiding inflammatory language as protesters denounced the gathering as traitorous.

The academic conference is the first time that an institution in the modern Turkish Republic has hosted a public event in which speakers will be permitted openly to discuss whether the fathers and grandfathers of today’s Turkish citizens committed the first genocide of the 20th century.

Hundreds of protesters waved Turkish flags and some pelted the arriving panelists with eggs and accused organizers of treachery.

The panelists, all Turkish speakers, carefully avoided any emotional language.

“Everyone waits for you to pronounce the genocide word — if you do one side applauds and the other won’t listen,” said Halil Berktay, program coordinator of the history department at Sabanci University.

Armenians have been pushing for decades to have the killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire recognized by the international community as genocide.

Turkey says the death toll is inflated and Armenians were killed in civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Modern Turkey, successor state of the empire, is now a candidate for European Union membership and the country’s commitment to democracy is being closely watched.

In May, the justice minister accused conference organizers of “stabbing the people in the back.” An Istanbul court shut the conference down on Thursday, but the court’s ruling was skirted by organizers who decided to change the conference venue.

“The aim [of the conference] … is to declare Turkey guilty of genocide,” said Erkan Onsel, head of the local branch of Turkey’s Workers’ Party who was among the protesters outside the conference.

Stating that Turks may have committed genocide against Armenians goes against the government line and could lead to prosecution in a country where many see the Ottoman Empire as a symbol of Turkish greatness.

“This is a fight of ‘Can we discuss this thing, or can we not discuss this thing?’” Murat Belge, a member of the organizing committee, said at the conference opening. “This is something that’s directly related to the question of what kind of country Turkey is going to be.”

Despite the official Turkish position, an increasing number of governments recognize the massacres of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 by Ottoman Turks as genocide.

The court order on Thursday that the conference be stopped drew criticism from the European Commission, whose spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy said “we strongly deplore this new attempt to prevent Turkish society from freely discussing its history.”

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