YEREVAN, Armenia — The presidents of Russia and France joined other leaders Friday at ceremonies commemorating the genocide 100 years ago of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks, an event which remains a diplomatic sore point for both sides.
The annual April 24 commemorations mark the day when some 250 Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in what is regarded as the first step of the massacres. An estimated 1.5 million died in the killings, deportations and forced marches that began in 1915 as Ottoman officials worried that the Christian Armenians would side with Russia, its enemy in World War I.
The event is widely viewed by historians as genocide but modern Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman Empire, vehemently rejects the charge, saying that the toll has been inflated, and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest. On the eve of the centennial, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that his nation’s ancestors never committed genocide.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Friday issued a statement expressing “deep empathy…and solidarity” with the Armenian people for the catastrophe of “massacres and forced expulsions” they suffered. It fell short, however, of labeling the killings a genocide.
In the capital Yerevan, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and First Lady Rita Sargsyan laid a wreath at a hilltop memorial at the start of the solemn ceremony.
Under a leaden sky shedding rain, foreign diplomats followed, each holding a yellow rose to put into the wreath laid at the foot of a monumental 44-meter (144-foot) needle, symbolizing the nation’s rebirth.
French President Francois Hollande and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who were among a handful of world leaders to visit for the anniversary, then joined the ceremony.
“We will never forget the tragedy that your people went through,” Hollande said.
Hollande urged Turkey to use “other words,” referring to Ankara’s refusal to recognize the genocide.
“Important words have already been said in Turkey, but others are still expected so that shared grief can become shared destiny,” Hollande said.
France is home to a sizable Armenian community. Among the French Armenians at Yerevan was 90-year old singer Charles Aznavour, who was born in Paris to a family of massacre survivors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin used his speech to warn of the dangers of nationalism as well as “Russophobia” in a clear dig at the West-leaning government in Ukraine.
He said Russia mourned the victims of the genocide and that mass killings could never be justified.
“There is no and cannot be any justification for mass murder of people,” Putin said. “Today we mourn together with the Armenian people.”
Earlier this month, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican after Pope Francis described the killings as genocide. The European Parliament has also triggered Turkey’s ire by passing a non-binding resolution to commemorate “the centenary of the Armenian genocide.”
Serzh Sargsyan expressed hope that recent steps to recognize the massacre as genocide will help “dispel the darkness of 100 years of denial.”
Sargsyan also welcomed Armenians from Turkey who were preparing to gather in Istanbul’s Taksim Square to honor the dead, calling them “strong people who are doing an important thing for their motherland.”
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians will later join a procession to the genocide memorial — Armenia’s most visited landmark — carrying candles and flowers to lay at the eternal flame.
The patchy list of foreign dignitaries attending commemorations in Yerevan highlights the lack of international consensus over Armenia’s bid to get the massacres recognised internationally as a genocide.
Many foreign leaders shied away for fear of upsetting Ankara.
More than 20 nations — including France and Russia — have so far recognized the Armenian genocide, a definition supported by numerous historians.
German President Joachim Gauck was expected to draw an angry reaction from Turkey after he condemned the massacres as genocide for the first time, speaking at a religious service in Berlin commemorating the bloodletting.
Gauck said on Thursday that the then German empire — the Ottoman Turkey’s ally in WWI — bore “shared responsibility, possibly shared guilt for the genocide.”
Germany deployed soldiers who took part in “planning and, in part, carrying out the deportations,” he said.
Ankara on Wednesday recalled its ambassador to Vienna in response to Austrian lawmakers’ decision to condemn the massacre as “genocide.”
Turkey has said up to 500,000 people were killed, but mostly due to war and starvation, and rejects the use of the term “genocide.”
US President Barack Obama on Thursday would only go so far as to describing the World War I massacres as “terrible carnage.”
Israel doesn’t formally recognize the Armenian genocide for various geopolitical reasons. These strategic considerations continue to trump heavy pressure from Jewish and Armenian groups and even a significant number of Israeli politicians. Israel’s ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide has survived several debates in the Knesset and even efforts by a former education minister to add the topic to school curricula.
In his address to the United Nations in New York on International Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this year, President Reuven Rivlin dedicated a large chunk of his speech to the fate of the Armenian people, but shied away from using the term “genocide” in direct connection with the massacres.
However, three Israeli dignitaries were scheduled to represent the state in the Armenian memorial events: MKs Anat Berko (Likud) and Nahman Shai (Zionist Union) and Israel’s non-resident ambassador to Armenia, Shmuel Meirom.