Lawmakers on Wednesday evening honored lives lost during the Armenian genocide 100 years ago — and pressed the global community to recognize what happened, urging President Barack Obama to lead on the issue.
“We must speak the truth and not dishonor those who died,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “We will continue to insist on the truth until it is widely accepted and apologized for.”
White House officials this week said Obama would not refer to the 1915 events as genocide, despite the fact that he did call it that when he was a senator.
“Genocide is genocide. That is plain and simple and cannot be called anything else. Just last week Pope Francis, in a historic acknowledgement, tells us that he knows it. He called the events from 100 years ago the first genocide of the century. And he is right,” said Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Armenians accuse Turkey, heirs of the Ottoman Empire, of massacring 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. Other groups, like the Greeks and Assyrians, also say their ancestors died during the genocide.
Turks claim that events in the early 20th century claimed the lives of both Armenians and Turks during the First World War.
In 2008, Barack Obama, then a senator and presidential candidate, said: “The Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable.”
Lawmakers expressed their frustration with the president’s decision.
“They try, but they’ll not put us down. I promise you that,” said Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Florida. “Facts are stubborn things.”
Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California agreed.
“What kind of world power can be cowed into denying [the genocide]?” he said. “Genocide denial is the final act of a genocide. First a people is destroyed, and then the perpetrators try to destroy the memory of the destruction. But genocide denial is also the first step in the next genocide.”
A statue in memory of the genocide will be unveiled on Friday in Las Vegas’s Sunset Park, according to Nevada Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat.
“I was very disappointed that our own president didn’t live up to his promise,” she said. Titus referred to the Turkish state as the “enemy.”
“We need the facts to be known, that 1.5 million Armenians died, not by accident, but by design,” said Rep. Judy Chu, Democrat of California. “We threaten our future on denial, explaining the genocide away, attributing it just to the cost of war makes it easier the next time a people is singled-out or targeted for extinction.”
Chu mentioned the unveiling of an Armenian genocide statue last week in Pasadena. The structure, fashioned like a tripod, resembles the structure used by Ottomans to hang Armenians, according to Chu. In a year’s time, 1.5 million drops of water, or teardrops, are expected to fall from the top of the structure.
Attendee Simon Shahinian, an intern in Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s office, said that Turkey would most likely not recognize the genocide anytime soon.
“[Recognition is] something I really want to see happen,” Shahinian said. “And it’s frustrating that the U.S. hasn’t recognized it.”
More than 20 countries and 40 U.S. states recognize the Armenian genocide.