Turkish parley begins on Armenian massacre

Participants choose words carefully at a gathering that nationalists denounce as traitorous.

Scholars held the first-ever public discussions in Turkey on Saturday about the early 20th-century massacre of Armenians, choosing words carefully in examining their history at a gathering that nationalists denounced as traitorous. The European Union called the academic conference a test of freedom of expression in Turkey, which is hoping to begin talks for membership in the bloc next month. The academic conference had been canceled twice, once in May after the justice minister said organizers were "stabbing the people in the back," and again on Thursday when an Istanbul court ordered the conference closed and demanded to know the academic qualifications of the speakers. "This is a fight of 'can we discuss this thing, or can we not discuss this thing?"' Murat Belge, a member of the organizing committee, said at the conference opening. "This is something that's directly related to the question of what kind of country Turkey is going to be." The Armenian issue stirs deep passions among Turks, who are being pushed by many in the international community to say that their fathers and grandfathers carried out the first genocide of the 20th century. "There are so many documents in hand with respect to the destruction of Armenians," said Taner Akcay, a Turkish-born professor at the University of Minnesota, and author of books on the subject including, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. Dozens of officers in riot gear kept hundreds of shouting protesters at bay. Some protesters pelted arriving panelists with eggs and rotten tomatoes. Inside, the audience of more than 300 people was restrained, as only those invited by the organizing committee and pre-approved members of the media were allowed past security. The issue has been a taboo for many years in Turkey, with those who speak out against the killings risking prosecution by a Turkish court. But an increasing number of Turkish academics have called for a review of the killings in a country where many see the Ottoman Empire as a symbol of Turkish greatness. The panelists, all Turkish speakers, carefully avoided any emotional language during the first day of the two-day conference. "Everyone waits for you to pronounce the genocide word - if you do one side applauds and the other won't listen," Halil Berktay, program coordinator of the history department at Sabanci University, said at the conference Saturday. Several governments around the world have recognized the killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire as genocide. Turkey vehemently denies the charge, admitting that many Armenians were killed, but saying the death toll is inflated and that Armenians were killed along with Turks in civil unrest and intercommunal fighting as the Ottoman Empire collapsed between 1915 and 1923. After the conference was shut down Thursday, Turkey drew condemnation from the European Commission. Organizers skirted the court order by changing the venue of the conference. The court-ordered cancellation Thursday was an embarrassment for the country's leaders, who are set to begin EU negotiations on Oct. 3. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul lamented that "there's no one better at hurting themselves than us," and sent a letter wishing the organizers a successful conference. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also condemned the court's decision, saying it did not befit a democratic country. The participants were all Turkish speakers and included members of Turkey's Armenian minority like Hrant Dink, the editor in chief of Agos, a weekly Armenian newspaper in Istanbul. There are some 70,000 Armenians living in Istanbul.