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Congress Debates Armenian Genocide

Washington, May 16 (RFE/RL) -- Congressmen and college professors debated whether a despotic Turkish empire plotted to wipe out its Armenian subjects during the First World War and whether the U.S. Congress should be involved in this contentious subject today.

The focal point for the discussion is a resolution pending in the U.S. House of Representatives that not only commemorates the Armenians who were killed between 1915 and 1918, but also calls on the U.S. Government to encourage its close NATO alliance ally Turkey to "take all appropriate steps to acknowledge and commemorate the atrocity committed against the Armenian population."

"I do not believe it is the proper role of Congress to legislate history and to debase an ally, and I mean a very strong ally in Turkey, by proposing resolutions like House Concurrent Resolution 47," Congressman Dan Burton (R-Indiana) said at a House International Relations Committee hearing Wednesday. "I believe Congress should leave history to the historians."

However, Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), said "it is important to bring that era to our memory, to demonstrate our solidarity with the victims and their families, and to express our determination to allow 'never again' such a horror to take place.

Some 165 of the 435 members of the House have signed the resolution. It has no force of law and only expresses what is called the sense of the Congress. The measure, however, has a deep symbolic meaning for the large Armenian American community in the United States and for the Armenian and Turkish governments.

Armenians contend the deaths of their ancestors during deportations to Arab lands were planned by Ottoman rulers and carried out by Turkish officials and soldiers. Modern Turkish governments do not dispute that hundreds of thousands died. However, they say that hundreds of thousands of Turks and other Muslim peoples died during the upheavals of World War One, and, more importantly, that the Armenian deaths were not part of a Turkish plot to kill off an old enemy.

Armenians say about 1.5 million were murdered. Turkey says about half that number died during the period of deportations. Armenians commemorate the deaths each April. For years, members of the U.S. Congress joined the commemorations. Dozens of congress members, including Senator Robert Dole, the Republican Party challenger to President Bill Clinton's re-election next fall, took part in ceremonies.

Participation by the U.S. Government in these commemorations, however, is a more sensitive issue. The U.S. is trying to avoid offending Turkish sensibilities. Washington considers Turkey a valuable ally in the Middle and Near East. The U.S. has encouraged Turkey to use its influence with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and the U.S. still has important military bases in Turkey.

The official Turkish view of the proposed House measure is that it "ignores that the passage of the Concurrent Resolution will have deep traumatic effects in Turkey as well as on Turkish Americans throughout the United States."

The sharply divided sides of the academic aspect of the period were also represented at the hearing.

"Those who today deny the Armenian Genocide are resorting to academically unsound revisionism in order to prevent the moral act of remembering this crime against humanity," said Professor Levon Marshlian of Glendale Community College in the state of California.

"In the process, the deniers are doing a disservice to the majority of today's Turkish people," he continued. "By keeping the wounds open ... they force the Turkish people to continue wearing like an albatross (eds: like a stone around the neck) the negative image earned by a circle of officials who ruled eight decades ago."

On the other side of the debate, Professor Justin McCarthy of the University of Louisville in the state of Kentucky said the history of the Armenian-Turkish conflict is "impossible to describe accurately in the statements of one-sided guilt such as that presently before Congress."

"I do not believe the Ottoman Government ever intended a genocide of Armenians and I believe this conclusion is based on both evidence and logic," McCarthy said. "Of the masses of secret deportation orders seen to date, not one orders murder. Instead they order Ottoman officials to protect deported Armenians."

He said the deaths of the Armenians resulted from the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. He said that hundreds of thousands of Armenians survived the war, and McCarthy says that it is enough to prove that the Turks did not set out to eliminate an entire people.

"Both sides were victims," McCarthy said.

Professor Marshlian, on the other hand, says the U.S. cannot ignore the evidence collected by U.S. officials during and after the First World War. He also said passage of the proposed resolution would benefit Turkey today.

"Encouraging Turkey to face the facts of its history would help lift the cloud of controversy which has haunted it for decades," he said.