U.S. President Joe Biden has formally recognized the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide, in a declaration that has infuriated Turkey.
“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring," Biden said in an April 24 statement that was released on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
“We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history. And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms,” Biden added.
With the formal acknowledgment, Biden followed on his campaign promise that if elected he would take the largely symbolic step that marked a break from his predecessors.
An unnamed U.S. official said the move was not meant to place blame on modern-day Turkey.
But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu immediately criticized Biden's statement.
"Words cannot change history or rewrite it," Cavusoglu said on Twitter. "We will not be given lessons on our history from anyone. Political opportunism is the biggest betrayal of peace and justice. We completely reject this statement that is based on populism. #1915Events."
"This statement of the U.S., which distorts the historical facts, will never be accepted in the conscience of the Turkish people, and will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship," Turkey's Foreign Ministry said separately, adding it rejected and denounced the statement "in the strongest terms."
Minutes before Biden’s announcement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a message to the Armenian community and patriarch of the Armenian church calling for not allowing “the culture of coexistence of Turks and Armenians...to be forgotten." He said the issue has been “politicized by third parties and turned into a tool of intervention against our country.”
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in a post on Facebook thanked Biden for "the powerful step towards justice and invaluable support for the descendants of the Armenian genocide victims."
During and immediately after World War I, Ottoman Turks killed or deported as many as 1.5 million Armenians -- a Christian minority in the predominately Muslim empire. Many historians and some other nations, including France and Germany, consider the killings genocide.
Armenians for decades have pressed for the word to be used to describe the killings and deportations, but the label is adamantly rejected by Turkey.
The White House earlier said that Biden spoke with Erdogan on the eve of the announcement.
Ankara insists the deaths were a result of civil strife rather than a planned Ottoman government effort to annihilate Armenians. Turkey also claims fewer Armenians died than has been reported.
Congress voted overwhelmingly in 2019 to recognize the Armenian genocide but the Trump administration made clear that it would maintain the status quo.
Other U.S. presidents have refrained from formally using the term genocide amid worry about damaging relations with Turkey, a NATO ally.
Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said in a statement ahead of the announcement that Biden would be "effectively ending the longest lasting foreign gag-rule in American history."
Hamparian said the recognition would represent a “powerful setback to Turkey's century-long obstruction of justice for this crime, and its ongoing hostility and aggression against the Armenian people."
He also voiced hope for greater U.S. alignment against Turkish-backed Azerbaijan, which last year fought a six-week war with Armenia, ending with a Russian-brokered cease-fire under which a chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh and all seven districts around it were placed under Azerbaijani administration after almost 30 years of control by ethnic Armenian forces.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters