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Archive for November, 2006

For Turkey’s Armenians, painful past is muted

November 30th, 2006 by

When Mesrob II, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul and All Turkey, meets today with Pope Benedict XVI, the one topic he says he definitely won’t bring up is the one that most intensely interests his people around the world: the Armenian genocide. Getting Turkey and the rest of the world to acknowledge the slaughter of more than 1 million Armenians in the early 20th century, many by troops of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, is a cherished goal of the Armenian diaspora. The visit from the spiritual leader of 1 billion Roman Catholics might seem the perfect opportunity not only to draw attention to the problems of the tiny Christian minority here, but also to ask the pontiff to press Turkey for an apology.
But for about 68,000 Turkish citizens of Armenian descent, who — along with 20,000 to 30,000 people from neighboring Armenia who have migrated here in search of jobs — make up by far the largest Christian community in Turkey, the situation is much more complicated, even dangerous.
Armenians here must balance a deep need to preserve the memory of the killings, known in Armenian as metz yeghern, or “the big calamity,” with safeguarding the small community that remains, which to them means avoiding conflict with the Muslim Turk majority or the nationalist government. Turkish citizens who mention the killings — including Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author who won the Nobel Prize this year — have been charged with the crime of “insulting Turkishness,” and risk fines, jail sentences, and even death threats.
The Armenian community is treading cautiously around the pope’s visit. Leaders are seeking his support on general issues of religious expression; during his first two days Benedict has already stressed the importance of religious freedom. But they are being careful not to embrace too closely a pontiff widely seen by Muslims as having insulted Islam — and they are avoiding any public reference to the genocide.
Many Armenians here say they have chosen to leave the past buried — or partly buried — in order to press for more immediate benefits. They want to persuade the government to ease onerous restrictions, such as laws that ban Christians from bequeathing land to the church or running independent seminaries to train priests. And they want to live in peace with the rest of this country of nearly 80 million people, about 99 percent of whom are Muslim and overwhelmingly ethnically Turkish.
Mesrob, the leader of the Armenian Orthodox Church here, is a case in point. Speaking the confident English he perfected at Memphis State University, he chose his words carefully in an hourlong conversation with three foreign reporters.
Asked whether he would discuss the genocide with the pope, he said he never brings up “local issues” with visiting dignitaries. Asked whether he could state for the record that a genocide took place, he fixed a reporter with a friendly gaze and was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “I acknowledge that people were killed.”But Mesrob, 50, spoke more readily when asked what had happened to his own family at the time. His grandfather’s six brothers were all deported from the town of Izmit, during a time when many Armenians were shipped off to the Syrian desert. His grandfather, who escaped to Istanbul and became a baker, never heard from them again. He assumed most of them died.
Mesrob’s parents and grandparents never told him the details. “They never talked about it. They didn’t want us to be at odds with our Muslim neighbors,” he said.
“There is no family that didn’t share this situation,” said Navart Beren, 51, an administrator at St. Mary’s Church, across the street from the patriarch’s residence on a winding street near the Sea of Marmara, where she was attending Mass last Sunday. Her parents were close-mouthed, too, she said: “They didn’t want us to carry revenge in our hearts.”
“All that is in the past,” said her friend Margarit Nalbantkazar, 52. “But this did happen: My husband’s father was 8 or 9 years old. He saw them take his father by hitting him on the back of the head with a gun. . . . They never saw him again.”
Murat Belge, a Turkish academic who runs the publishing house that prints Pamuk’s books, explained why Armenians inside Turkey walk such a fine line between forgetting and accusing.
Told of the patriarch’s comments, Belge said: “If he had said there was an Armenian genocide, it’s very likely that he would be assassinated by some fascists, the patriarchate would be burned, and Armenians leading their daily lives would be shot by unknown people.”
Turkey has always insisted that the deaths, most of them in 1915, were part of a war in which a beleaguered Ottoman Empire was facing Armenian rebels allied with its enemies, which included the United States, Britain, and Russia.
But most historians agree that Armenians were systematically killed and driven out. The subject is extremely sensitive in Turkey because many of the military leaders of the dying Ottoman Empire went on to found the secular Turkish republic in 1923.
Also in the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians were forced to leave Turkey as smaller numbers of Muslims were forced out of Greece, under the agreement that established the Greek and Turkish borders. Today, Christians make up less than 1 percent of the population.
US policy on the Armenian deaths is to respect the position of Turkey, an important NATO ally, though the 1.2 million Armenians in America fiercely lobby Congress to recognize the genocide.
Pope John Paul II called the events a genocide in a 2000 document, and in 2001 visited a memorial to the victims in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. In a speech there, he avoided the term genocide but adopted the Armenian phrase “big calamity.”
The Vatican has given no indication of whether Benedict will mention the issue.
Mesrob said he hoped the pope’s visit would improve interfaith relations, but whether it does “depends on what kind of language he’s going to use,” he added with a chuckle. He said the pope’s September remarks, quoting a Byzantine ruler’s criticism of Islam as violent, “jeopardized” Christian minorities.
A metal detector and security checkpoint stand outside Mesrob’s ornate residence, and security will be extra tight during the pope’s visit, he said.
Mesrob said Turks do not bear all responsibility for the killings of Armenians but have “the most important responsibility” because “they were ruling the country.” He said many people believe “ethnic cleansing” was carried out to “remove Christians from public life.”
When asked if Armenians in Turkey have a ceremony or memorial site to commemorate the killings, he said that they do not, but that people remember the date April 24, 1915, when Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul were rounded up and deported, as a kind of “beheading of the community.”
Mesrob dismissed recent allegations that he forbids church officials to speak of the killings. “It’s not a question of silence,” he said. “How can you make friends with someone if you confront them?”
Instead, he recommends cultural exchanges between Armenia and Turkey to pave the way for an honest discussion of the events, he said. In the meantime, he said, when foreign governments raise the issue, ethnic Armenians in Turkey get nervous.
Aida Barsegian, 56, a house cleaner who moved here from Armenia, said it didn’t help when France passed a law last month declaring it a crime to deny the genocide. “If they care so much, they should open the borders of France and let us find work there,” she said after lighting candles at the church. “Here they give me work.”

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Silence in Turkey’s genocide controversy

November 30th, 2006 by

Mesrob II, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul and all Turkey, was silent for a second.He just had been asked by a reporter whether he acknowledged that the Armenian genocide happened.

“Uhhhh,” he said, “I acknowledge that people were killed.” He was silent again. “Many people lost their lives.”

More uneasy silence followed.

This from a man whose paternal grandfather was the only one of six ethnic Armenian brothers to make it back to Istanbul after being, as he put it, “deported to the Syrian desert” in 1915. They were among more than a million ethnic Armenians who suffered a similar fate at the hands of Ottoman Turks: They were rounded up, deported to concentration camps and, for the most part, killed.”

So severe has been the treatment that careful estimates place the number of survivors at only 15 percent of those originally deported,” the U.S. consul in Aleppo wrote to the State Department in 1915 in a dispatch quoted in a recent article in The New Yorker magazine. “On this basis the number surviving even this far being less than 150,000 … there seems to have been about 1,000,000 persons lost up to this date.”

What Mesrob II, who will meet the visiting Pope Benedict XVI today in Istanbul, could not or would not say was that the Turks of the then-Ottoman Empire committed genocide against the Armenians who lived in modern-day Turkey. For the Turkish state, and many Turks, to admit their forebears committed genocide is something they will not even consider, and it makes many Turks extremely angry even to suggest the genocide happened. Authors and journalists, including Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, were prosecuted for suggesting it took place. But for the 65,000 ethnic Armenians – mostly Orthodox Christians – who live in this country of 70 million Muslims, to speak publicly of genocide would not be just brave, but potentially suicidal.

“Probably the state wouldn’t do anything directly except make some statement” if Mesrob were to say there was a genocide, said Murat Belge, one of Pamuk’s publishers and an organizer of an unprecedented conference last year in Istanbul about the genocide.

“Very likely he would be assassinated by some fascists,” continued Belge, who was himself prosecuted under a controversial law last year for writing critical articles about a court’s ban on the conference. “The Patriarchate would be burned down. A lot of Armenians would be shot in their daily lives.”

Mesrob, in an interview at the well-guarded Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, said many different peoples, governments, political parties and even his own Armenian Patriarchate should share the blame for what happened in 1915. He said he believed the best way for Turks and Armenians to reconcile is for Turkey to open its border with Armenia and for the two countries to encourage exchange visits and other ways of generating mutual sympathy.

“It’s not a matter of being silent about the issue,” he said. “It’s a matter of how can you make friends with someone. Do you from the first moment simply confront the person?”

If it’s not silence, then it’s a pragmatic sort of self-censorship. Growing up, Mesrob’s father never talked to him about what happened to the previous generation, he said. “I think they didn’t want us to be at odds with our Muslim neighbors.”

That parenting method continues today among the ethnic Armenians in Turkey, Mesrob said. “We don’t tell our children about historical problems so they won’t face problems.”

The Turkish government’s position on the events of 1915 is that the people who died in the region at the time died as a result of inter-ethnic fighting, disease and hardships caused by war.

More than 20 countries have officially recognized the genocide, as have a majority of the 50 states in the United States, including New York. It is long-standing State Department policy not to refer to the events of 1915 as genocide; many critics of this policy see it as a politically expedient way of avoiding alienating a crucial U.S. ally.

Most Western historians agree the genocide happened. Last year, the International Association of Genocide Scholars wrote to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about it, concluding: “We believe that it is clearly in the interest of the Turkish people and their future as a proud and equal participant in international, democratic discourse to acknowledge the responsibility of a previous government for the genocide of the Armenian people, just as the German government and people have done in the case of the Holocaust.”

Such an acknowledgment will not come easily or quickly – if at all.

“Until the 1980s there was a total loss of memory,” said a Turkish political power broker who requested anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity. “Nobody talked about this. It was the policy of the omnipotent state not to talk about anything negative.”

Last year’s conference in Istanbul and a growing concern about the issue in Europe – a recent French law makes it a crime to deny the genocide – have moved Turkey slightly closer to coming to terms with its past.

“The skeletons are there and they have not vanished,” the Turkish power broker said. “Now we are going to open the cupboard.”

If Turkey is to gain entry to the European Union, it likely will have to acknowledge its actions in 1915 – although Turkey accepting the word “genocide” could forever remain a sticking point.

Egemen Bagis, foreign policy adviser to Erdogan, said in an interview that last year Erdogan made an offer to the Armenian president: Both countries would establish an independent investigative commission and open up all countries’ archives to establish what happened.

“No other politician in Turkey’s history has ever said he is ready to face his own history,” Bagis said.But when asked whether he recognized that a genocide took place, Bagis responded quickly: “I don’t.”

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Awaiting Pope, Turkey Is Unsure About Ties to West

November 29th, 2006 by

A short 24 hours before a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to this Muslim country, its prime minister finally agreed to meet him publicly. The venue: the airport, on the Turkish leader’s way out of town.

The elaborate, last-minute choreography pointed to the deep divide that has festered within Turkish society since the foundation of the modern state. Should Turkey face eastward, toward its Muslim neighbors, or westward, toward Europe?

In the past five years, Muslims here have repeatedly felt betrayed by the West. The United States began holding Muslims without charges at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It invaded Iraq and abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The European Union has cooled to them. The pope made a speech citing criticism of Islam.

Now, Turkey — a Muslim country with a rigidly secular state — is at a pivot point. It is trying to navigate a treacherous path between the forces that want to pull it closer toward Islam and the institutions that safeguard its secularism. Turkey’s government, which is pro-Islamic, is constrained by rules dictating secularism established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s revered founder.

The extremes jostle on Istanbul’s streets, where miniskirts mix with tightly tied headscarves and lingerie boutiques stand unapologetically next to mosques.

“There are two Turkeys within Turkey right now,” said Binnaz Toprak, a professor of political science at Bosporus University.

The pope’s visit, which begins Tuesday, falls squarely on that sensitive fault line and has brought into stark relief a slow but steady shift: Turkey is feeling its Muslim identity more and more. The trend worries secular Turkish politicians, who believe the state’s central tenet is under threat. In late October, a senior officer of Turkey’s army — which has ousted governments it has seen as overly Islamic — issued a rare warning to that effect.

Others say the threat is overstated, but acknowledge that Turks do feel pushed east by pressures on their country from America and Europe. A poll by the Pew Foundation in June found that 53 percent of Turks have positive views of Iran, while public opinion of Europe and the United States has slipped sharply.

“Many people in Turkey have lost hopes in joining Europe and they are looking for other horizons,” said Onur Oymen, an opposition politician whose party is staunchly secular.

It has been more than 80 years since religion was ripped out of the heart of the new Turkish state, which was assembled from the remains of the Ottoman Empire, the political and economic heart of the Muslim world for centuries. But the portion of Turks who identify themselves by their religion, first and foremost as Muslims, has increased to 46 percent this year, from 36 percent seven years ago, according to a survey of 1,500 people in 23 cities conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an independent research organization based in Istanbul. That is a trend that has emerged in countries throughout the Muslim world since Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’m here as a Muslim,” said Fatma Eksioglu, who was sitting on the grass next to her sister in downtown Istanbul on Sunday at a demonstration of about 20,000 people opposing the pope’s visit. She did not belong to the Islamic party that organized the gathering, she said, adding, “When it comes to Islam we are one.”

But in a paradox that goes to the heart of the nuances of modern Turkey – a stronger Muslim identity does not mean that, as in Iraq, fundamentalism is on the rise. or even that more Turks want more religion in their government. Indeed, the number of Turks in favor of imposing Sharia law declined to 9 percent from 21 percent, according to the survey, which was released last week.

Perhaps the most powerful factor pushing Turks toward the east has been a series of bitter setbacks in talks on admission to the European Union. To try to win membership, the Turkish government enacted a series of rigorous reforms to bring the country in line with European standards, including some unprecedented in the Muslim world, such as a law against marital rape.

But the admission talks have stalled. And while the official reason is a quibble involving the longstanding Greek-Turkish dispute over Cyprus, most Turks say they believe the real reason is a deep suspicion of their country’s religion.

They see that in the opposition to Turkey’s admission voiced by some European countries, including Germany, Austria and France. Indeed, in 2002, , former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France said Turkey’s admission to the European Union would mean ”the end of Europe,” and now the French presidential hopeful Nicholas Sarkozy has made his opposition a campaign issue. Even the pope, when he was still a cardinal in Germany, said publicly that he did not think Turkey fit into Europe because it was Muslim. That talk has begun to grate on Turks.

“It hurts me that the E.U. expects Turkey to be something it’s not,” said Nilgun Yun, a stylish 26-year-old chewing a chocolate muffin in a downtown Istanbul cafe on Sunday.

Her position, shared by many of her friends, was simple: “Accept me as I am. We are Muslim, and we will remain Muslim. That’s not going to change.”

Mr. Oyman, the Turkish opposition politician, said that talk about Turkey was tougher than ever. “You cannot believe how they accuse Turkey on Cyprus and other issues,” he said in a telephone interview from Brussels, where he was attending a meeting of European parliamentarians. “Our European friends are playing a very shortsighted game.”

The shift has begun affect trade. While Europe is still Turkey’s largest trading partner, business with other neighbors, including Syria, Iraq and Iran, has picked up substantially in recent years, said Omer Bolat, the head of one of the country’s largest business associations, whose members are mostly pro-Islamic. He put the growth at about 30 percent from just 3 percent in 2000.

“It is risky for a country with respect to foreign policy to have dependence on one partner and market,” he said in English, sitting in a sleek conference room when overlooking a bustling trade fair showcasing Turkish goods. “Now Turkey is opening its muscles, its horizons.”

The policies of the Bush administration have deeply worried Muslims, he said, before rushing off to speak to the Pakistani ambassador, who had arrived to the trade fair.

“The United States used to be paradigm of freedom and rights,” he said. “But since the Republican period, the U.S. policies have been so detrimental in Muslim eyes.”

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, in just four years, has managed to get inflation down to historic lows and growth rates to all-time highs. The growing prosperity has eased integration of religious Turks into the country’s self-consciously society, which is still suspicious of advocates of Islam, as well as of Mr. Erdogan and his pro-Islamic government.

“This group of people that was more religious has relaxed,” Ms. Toprak said. “They are now visible. They go to restaurants they would never have gone; they go to posh shopping malls.”

“It was a struggle to get a piece of the pie,” she said. “Now they have one.”

Even so, the increased religiosity, or at least identification with religion, could eventually present a serious problem for Turkey. There are already rumblings. A killing of a judge whose court had ruled on a headscarf case aroused suspicions among Turkey’s securlarists. Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, head of the Turkish Army, has referred to a rising threat of fundamentalism on at least four occasions since he came to office in late August.

Mr. Erdogan’s closely watched government has attempted to limit liquor consumption in public places, but later backed down. It also tried to make adultery a crime, but later relented.

Some Turkish officials play down the possibility of real damage to secularism, but say that European suspicion does Turkey no good.

The delay with Europe, for instance, “fans up the disappointment, the disillusionment,” said Namik Tan, the spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry. “People say, why are they doing this?”

That is why public officials, including Mr. Erdogan, have shrunk from the visit of the pope, who symbolizes, in the eyes of Turks, a disdain for Islam and the unfair exclusivity of the Western club. A cartoon in a Turkish newspaper last weekend showed two public officials belly-laughing at the bad luck of those Turkish officials obliged to meet him. (The senior official appointed to be his formal guide has the portfolio of youth and sport.) But the pope is coming, and the meetings are happening. Despite growing pains, a neglected Kurdish minority in the south, a thin skin for any reference to the Armenian genocide, and failure to scrap a law that makes insulting Turkishness a crime, Turkey stands out as lively democracy in a larger Middle East riddled with restrictions, and its acceptance by the West is a test case for everyone, officials said.

Muslim countries, Mr. Tan points out, are watching. “Turkey is a beacon for those countries,” he said. “Don’t forget, if we fail, then the whole dream will fail.”

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EU Body Suggests Suspending Turkey Talks

November 29th, 2006 by

The European Commission on Wednesday recommended partially suspending European Union membership talks with Turkey to protest Ankara’s continued refusal to open its ports to Cyprus.

Turkey’s prime minister called the action “unacceptable.”
The recommendation by the EU’s executive body comes at a sensitive moment for Turkey, with attention focused on the country as it hosts a visit by Pope Benedict XVI. On Tuesday, the pontiff expressed support for Turkey’s efforts to join the EU, moving away from previous opposition.
All 25 EU leaders are to rule on the commission’s advice at their Dec. 14-15 summit, but EU nations already showed they are deeply divided over how to handle Turkey’s entry bid.
Prime Minister Tony Blair called it a “serious mistake” to send Turkey a negative message on membership now, and Spain’s Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero urged leaders to “work intensively” to keep the doors open to Ankara.
Denmark’s Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, meanwhile, said the EU had to “send a very clear signal” to Turkey that it must live up to its promises on Cyprus and on speeding up what he called the slow pace of reforms on the island, which remains divided between the Turkish Cypriot-held north and the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south.
“It is Turkey that must adapt to the EU,” he said. “It’s not the other way around.”
French President Jacques Chirac said France “was in line with Germany and other partners” that the EU “has no other choice” given Turkey’s refusal to adopt a customs pact with the EU, which would open Turkish ports to Cyprus.
A decision to slow the entry talks would likely cause a rift in relations with Turkey over its decades-old bid to join the bloc and potentially damage the EU’s image on the world stage. Negotiations started in October 2005.
“We confirm that these negotiations continue, although at a slower pace,” said EU commissioner Olli Rehn. “Failure to meet legal obligations cannot remain without consequences.”
Rehn added, however, that Turkey still had time to resolve the standoff over Cyprus before a Dec. 11 foreign ministers meeting and avert a firm EU decision to partially freeze the negotiations.
“Such a decision is unacceptable,” private NTV television quoted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying during a NATO summit in Latvia.
“We will not allow anyone to trample on our rights,” Egemen Bagis, an aide to Erdogan, told NTV. He said Turkish leaders would still try to avert a partial suspension.
The European Commission’s recommendation, drafted by Rehn, called on EU governments not to open negotiations on issues that touch upon Turkey’s relations with Cyprus. These include such issues as the free movement of goods, financial services, agriculture, fisheries, transport policy, customs union policy and external relations issues.
Rehn also recommended that no chapter of the package could be finalized until Turkey moves to open its ports to Cyprus.
The recommendation also called on a rapid movement by the United Nations to relaunch separate negotiations to reunify Cyprus.
Cyprus, Greece and France have taken a hard line against Turkey in recent months over the standoff, demanding that talks be suspended. Britain, Sweden and Spain are urging that the EU ensure talks are not frozen, fearing a rupture in ties with predominantly Muslim Turkey.
The European Commission warned Turkey in October that failure to extend a customs pact to EU member Cyprus by December could threaten the continuation of membership talks.
Ankara on Monday rejected a compromise EU proposal to settle the standoff over Cyprus.
Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, is to visit Turkey on Friday in a last-ditch attempt to sway Turkey.

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Cyprus diplomacy gathers steam again after Finnish plan fails

November 29th, 2006 by

Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen is coming to Turkey on Friday to discuss Turkey’s European Union negotiations, with his talks to be followed by a visit by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on Dec. 4, as diplomacy gains momentum again after the failure of a Finnish plan to resolve a dispute over Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports to traffic from Greek Cyprus.
Kim Darroch, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s European affairs advisor, is also scheduled to visit Ankara today and have talks at the Foreign Ministry. In Riga, where leaders of NATO countries are meeting for a summit, Blair is expected to meet with Erdoğan for talks on how to tackle the Cyprus dispute.

Sources told the Turkish Daily News that Vanhanen’s visit is meant to “take Ankara’s pulse” rather than to seek a new compromise formula on Cyprus.

Finland’s efforts to reach a deal on the ports dispute this year failed when Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja announced after separate talks with Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül and Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister George Lillikas in Tampere on Monday that there was no possibility for a quick agreement.

Erdoğan, speaking before heading to Riga for the NATO summit, said Finland’s efforts had not been a waste. “I do not share the view that the Finnish plan was without any results,” he said. “We will continue our journey [towards EU membership] under any conditions. We will do whatever falls on our shoulders.”

He also said there would be no “train crash” over Cyprus, deriving support for his optimism from EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, who said talks with Turkey will not be frozen but instead will proceed more slowly.

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