As Armenian date approaches, so does dispute over 'genocide'

McClatchy NewspapersApril 23, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Armenian genocide commemorations continue to attract political, diplomatic and fraternal grief upon the arrival of another April 24 anniversary date.

On Capitol Hill, an Armenian genocide resolution lacks the votes needed for House or Senate passage. In downtown Washington, bitter lawsuits ensnare plans for an Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial. In the White House and on Embassy Row, the phrase "Armenian genocide" still confounds international relations.

"We always hear 'it's not the right time' to recognize genocide," said Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "There's always something that will come up."

On Saturday, President Barack Obama is expected to issue the White House's annual statement commemorating the tragic events of 1915-1923. The statement is typically pegged to April 24, considered the start of the Ottoman Empire's assault on Armenian leaders.

While campaigning, Obama endorsed use of the word "genocide." Last April, however, emulating other presidents, Obama studiously avoided the term in his 389-word statement.

"We expect that the president will honor his prior commitment and unequivocally affirm the Armenian genocide (this year)," said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.

Obama, though, confronts the same pressures as he did last year. Turkey considers the phrase "Armenian genocide" a gross insult, and the key NATO ally that borders both Iraq and Iran knows how to make its displeasure clear.

The Turkish ambassador to the U.S. only returned to Washington several weeks ago, after he had been recalled to Ankara following a March 5 vote by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. By a 23-22 margin, the committee approved the latest version of an Armenian genocide resolution.

"If we look at what the president has done in the past ... all the weathervanes point to a statement that refrains from use of the term (genocide)," said Bruce Fein, general counsel for the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund.

Turkish Embassy officials declined to comment. Fein, though, insisted it "is still a matter of serious debate" as to whether the Ottoman Empire's actions met the legal definition of genocide. Genocide means the intentional targeting for destruction of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group; it does not cover political groups."

The stalled congressional genocide resolution is backed by representatives from California's San Joaquin Valley and other regions with sizable Armenian-American populations. With 140 co-sponsors, however, it lacks the 218 votes needed to pass the House of Representatives.

The Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial is hung up on a different kind of fight.

The facility, first proposed in 1996, has already been plotted out, by the same firm that designed Washington's popular Spy Museum. Planners originally wanted the 35,000-square-foot museum open by 2011.

For several years, though, the genocide museum's board has been entangled in a legal dispute with onetime museum benefactor Gerard L. Cafesjian and the Cafesjian Family Foundation.

Museum board members say Cafesjian tried to delay the project and profit from it personally. Cafesjian says he was shut out of key planning decisions. A federal judge sums up the dispute as "very bitter and very unfortunate."

Attorneys are wading through some 8,000 pages of documents provided by Cafesjian and reviewing depositions that, transcripts show, have periodically turned brittle.

"I am just getting sick and tired of answering these questions," Hirair Hovnanian, the chairman of the Armenian Assembly's board, said in a deposition last year, acknowledging his hopes that an unnamed "multibillionaire" would fund the museum.

Museum planners anticipate needing $60 million to build and operate the facility.

"Once the litigation ends, the rest of the museum project will move forward quickly," said Van Krikorian, a board member of both the museum and the Armenian Assembly.

Some related work still proceeds.

On Wednesday, one block from the proposed museum site, the 93-year-old grandson of Henry Morgenthau, who was U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, formally donated part of his grandfather's library to the research-oriented Armenian National Institute.

Morgenthau's reporting from the Ottoman Empire provided direct evidence of the Armenians' fate, and he's often cited by Armenian genocide resolution supporters.

"I like to call myself an honorary Armenian," Henry Morgenthau III said when asked why he donated the family books, "and this seemed like the most appropriate place."

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