Old dispute still burns

Genocide: Maryland's lawmakers find themselves drawn into the ethnic conflict of Armenians, Greeks and Turks dating to World War I.

March 08, 2001|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF

It's rare that the Maryland General Assembly is asked to take sides in a historical ethnic conflict with implications for American foreign policy.

But a request to designate April 24 as the "Maryland Day of Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923" has thrust legislators into a dispute over wartime atrocities perpetrated by an empire that has disappeared.

The joint resolutions filed in the House of Delegates and Maryland Senate seek to memorialize the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who perished in the last days of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

The request, which would carry no force in law, has generated an outcry from Turkish officials and their supporters.

Thousands of protest e-mails - many of them form letters - have arrived in Annapolis from Turkish citizens opposing the resolutions as biased, distortions of the "historical truth."

Armenian-Americans and Greek-Americans, who bear their own historical enmity for the Turks, view the opponents to the resolution in terms just as strong - as revisionists and deniers of "a crime against humanity."

"It's been the No. 1 issue that we have received mail and e-mail on in the last two weeks," said Mike Morrill, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "There have been almost 1, 400 e-mails and letters, and that compares to 250 for the next highest topic. ... It's pretty obvious that it's a campaign being organized by Turkish-Americans and their allies."

The issue is about who is responsible for the deaths of vast numbers of Armenian refugees living in Ottoman-controlled areas of Asia Minor during and immediately after World War I. At least 600,000 Armenians died during that time, but the causes and circumstances of their deaths have been in dispute ever since.

Some descendents of those who survived are among those leading the fight for recognition here and abroad.

The issue brought the Turkish ambassador to Annapolis to express his concern to House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland Democrat, and other key legislators. And Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, cautioned in a Jan. 31 letter to a GOP legislative leader that approval of the resolutions could cost Maryland defense-related jobs if Turkey were to cancel contracts, as it did this year when France approved a similar resolution.

On the other side, four Marylanders of Armenian descent - including two elderly survivors of that era - testified at a General Assembly hearing on the matter. Also, two of the state's most prominent Greek-Americans, U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, have let lawmakers know of their strong support for the legislation.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, introduced the measure in the House on behalf of Armenian-Americans in her district.

"We've taken stands on the Holocaust, slavery, black history. We passed legislation for the Polish, the Lithuanians. That's why no one panicked over the Armenians asking us to do something," said Hixson, who met last month with Turkish Ambassador Baki Ilkin. "We aren't picking or choosing sides."

Perry Sfikas, a Baltimore Democrat, took the initiative in the Senate. As a child, he said, he heard stories about the expulsion of Greeks from what today is the seaside town of Izmir, Turkey.

"If we are going to be a really pluralistic and diverse society, we need to know everybody's story," said Sfikas, a Greek-American. "If we understand that every group has its story, we'll be a bit more empathetic."

The stories told by the two sides differ significantly - from the dates in question to the number of victims to the reason for the deaths and the redress.

"Let the historians discuss it and put their objective account on it rather than the legislators who are inevitably driven by political concerns," said Namik Tan, a spokesman for the Turkish Embassy in Washington.

The resolution, as introduced and modeled after a Virginia measure that passed last year, cited the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians by their Ottoman rulers.

It accused "Modern Turkey" of denying the events of the past and honoring its ancestors as heroes. And the measure invoked a 1939 statement ascribed to Adolf Hitler regarding his plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe: "Who, after all, today speaks of the Armenians?"

The Turks challenge each clause they find objectionable. They estimate that 600,000 Armenians from Anatolia died during the war years of 1912-1922. They attribute the deaths to intercommunal violence, starvation and forced migration. They note that 2.5 million Anatolian Muslims died during that same period. And they say the British detained 144 Ottoman officials for trial, but an investigation found insufficient evidence to convict them of massacres.

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