In Memory of a Genocide

This column was the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on October 15, 2007.

Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)

When Pearl Aslanian was five, ethnically Turkish Ottoman soldiers entered her village. She watched as they killed her father, and, as the family escaped on foot to Amman, Jordan, she helped her mother bury a younger brother on the banks of the Tigris River.

In March of 2006 I officiated at the Pearl’s funeral and, at the risk of becoming persona non grata in Turkey, I consider it a great honor to have presided at the graveside of someone who was among the last humans able to remember the Turkish genocide of Armenians during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

Pearl’s funeral was memorable for me because, combined with the grief that always presents itself during such occasions was a tangible fear that the memory of the Armenian genocide would disappear as the members of Pearl’s generation returned to the dust from which they were made.

Last week Pearl Aslanian was on my mind after I heard that the US House of Representatives’ foreign relations committee ignored the direct pleas of President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Robert Gates by approving a nonbinding measure that condemns as “genocide” the Ottoman army’s murder of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. House speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that the measure will receive a vote by the full house in coming weeks.

In Turkey, where it is a crime publicly to acknowledge the veracity of the Armenian genocide, the reaction was swift. Demonstrators filled the streets of Ankara. The Turkish government called the ambassador home for “consultations.”

The Bush Administration opposes official recognition of the Armenian genocide because it fears such a commitment to this historical truth will have a detrimental effect upon the American relationship with Turkey, whose support has been vital in the ongoing war in Iraq. Specifically, there is concern that Turkey might not allow important supply flights into Iraq through Turkish air space.

This raises some important questions: are the American people willing to sacrifice what is true in support of a war that was waged on the wager that truth is fungible? Is winning a yet to be defined victory in Iraq worth the United States’ government becoming an agent of Turkish propaganda?

I’d like to think not. Outside of Turkey, few historians question the idea that Armenians in Turkey were victims of genocide at the beginning of the twentieth century. But it’s not just historical accuracy that demands correct nomenclature for the atrocities committed by the Ottoman army; any forgotten genocide enables the possibility of future genocides. The world’s inattention to the Armenian Genocide is said to have emboldened Hitler as he planned and carried out the Holocaust; one wonders what bloodshed the world community might have prevented in Darfur had we taken timely notice of the genocide in Rwanda.

I hope the House of Representatives joins the foreign relations committee in passing the symbolic resolution naming the murder of Turkish Armenians a genocide. The memory of Pearl Aslanian, and of her father and her younger brother, and of more than 1.5 million other Armenian victims and survivors of the 1915 genocide demand of us such honesty.

P.S. For a legal definition of genocide, click here.