Istanbul, Turkey – Thousands of Turks and Armenians from around the globe have commemorated in Istanbul the centenary of the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Events organised by Turkish and foreign nongovernmental organisations were held in Istanbul throughout Friday to mark the anniversary of the killings.
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The commemorations went ahead despite Turkey’s rejection of the term “genocide” to describe the killings, and as world leaders joined hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, to commemorate the deaths.
Turkey earlier this month recalled its ambassadors to the Vatican and the Austrian capital of Vienna for consultations after they called the mass killings of 1915 a “genocide”.
The European Parliament also passed a non-binding resolution last week, calling Turkey to recognise the “Armenian genocide”, a move which prompted condemnation from Ankara.
In Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul, an event attended by thousands of people and guarded by hundreds of security forces featured Armenian music and speeches by local and international community leaders.
Diclan Tarakci, a 52-year-old pensioner from Turkey who attended the commemoration, told Al Jazeera that she wanted Turkey to make peace with its past.
“Turkey is discussing the [Armenian] issue more today than yesterday. These are big steps, but there is still a long way to go. I am hopeful,” she said.
“My ancestors saved an Armenian child in 1915 by hiding him. They did not even know him,” she said.
Roxanne Nakashian, a 54-year-old publicist, travelled from San Francisco to Istanbul for the commemoration event.
“Both my grandparents are survivors of the Armenian genocide. They and some of my wider family members were able to escape from it with the help of good neighbours and luck.
“I am very moved by the commemoration events. I feel like this is where I belong. This is my ancestral homeland. I am glad to be here.”
Seta Papazian, 58, from France, told Al Jazeera that it was her second time in Istanbul to attend a commemoration.
“When you grow up with the burden of the genocide, it becomes part of your character. You get very intolerant with injustice. That is why I am here,” she said.
In a written statement on Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he was aware of the sad incidents Armenians went through in the past and that he sincerely shared their pain.
“You [Armenians] should know that the gates of our hearts are open to grandchildren of all Ottoman Armenians,” he said.
“Today, we work with our citizens, friends, regardless of their religious and ethnic identities, to achieve better days on the basis of peace and brotherhood.”
Ankara agrees that many Armenians died in ethnic fighting and the deportation process between 1915 and 1917 during the same war, putting its estimate at 300,000 casualties.
Armenia says 1.5 million died in the process, including the march to Syria, in what it calls a genocide – an accusation denied by Turkey, which maintains there was no systematic attempt to destroy Armenians.
Earlier in the day, another commemoration event was held on the Asian side of Istanbul at Haydarpasa train station, where, on April 24 of 1915, over 200 Armenian community leaders, including intellectuals and scientists, were deported from Istanbul, the Ottoman capital of the time to Syria.
In another part of Istanbul, in Kumkapi on the European side, the Turkish government was unprecedentedly represented by Turkey’s EU minister Volkan Bozkir at the Armenian Patriarchate’s commemoration ceremony.
Bozkir called for “a common and fair memory of what happened” during World War I and said that his government respected the pain of Armenians.
Levent Sensever of Durde, a Turkish NGO against racism and a partner of the April 24 commemoration events, told Al Jazeera that four to five hundred Armenians from various parts of the world were in Istanbul for the centenary of the genocide.
“Ten years ago, nothing could be discussed in Turkey on the Armenian issue. With the efforts of the civil society in Turkey, and the support from international partners, this has changed. This year, the commemoration event in Istanbul has grown a lot, getting important international attention.”
The commemoration has been marked in Turkey in the past five years through the efforts of local NGOs.
Since 2013, Armenians around the world have attended the commemoration events through collaboration between local and international NGOs.
“I am standing [in Istanbul] as a witness against denial and erasure with like-minded citizens of Turkey as we memorialise the victims and the survivors of the Armenian genocide,” American Armenian novelist Nancy Kricorian, who is also one of the organisers of Istanbul commemoration events, told Al Jazeera in Istanbul.
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