By Philip Elliott
Sunday, April 25, 2010; A10
ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- As a candidate, Barack Obama repeatedly promised to refer to the almost century-old massacre of Armenians in Turkey as a genocide. But since becoming president, Obama has twice passed up opportunities to do so.
In a statement Saturday, Obama called the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians during World War I "one of the worst atrocities" of the 20th century and "a devastating chapter" in history.
The statement, issued as Obama and first lady Michelle Obama spent a weekend getaway here in western North Carolina, marked the 95th anniversary of the start of the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. The president called it "a devastating chapter in the history of the Armenian people."
Activists and officials from across the spectrum were quick to express disappointment.
Armenian National Committee of America Chairman Ken Hachikian voiced "sharp disappointment with the president's failure to properly condemn and commemorate the Armenian genocide."
"Sadly for the U.S. and worldwide efforts to end the cycle of genocide, he made the wrong choice, allowing Turkey to tighten its gag rule on American genocide policy," he said.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, called Obama's statement "not acceptable."
"If we are going to share griefs for humanitarian reasons, then we would expect respect for our own grief as well," Davutoglu said.
The Turkish Coalition of America said that Obama's statement does not address "the equally tragic loss of even more Muslim lives in this turbulent period of Ottoman history."
"Where does the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Turks from the Balkans, Eastern Turkey and the Caucasus -- with 5 million lost and 5.5 million refugees -- come on the president's list of 'worst atrocities of the 20th century'?" said G. Lincoln McCurdy, president of the Turkish Coalition of America.
For Obama, referring to the killings as genocide could upend pledges to have a closer partnership with Turkey, a vital ally in a critical region. Steering around the word, however, has put him at odds with his own pledges to recognize the slaughter as genocide.
Obama promised on Jan. 19, 2008, that as president, "I will recognize the Armenian genocide," and repeatedly used the word. He first softened his tone last year in marking the 94th anniversary of the killings.
Obama said Saturday that he had not changed his view since the campaign, even as he declined to state it.
"I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed," he said in the statement, issued as he played golf at a mountaintop resort. "A full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts" was in everyone's interest, he added.
Armenians say that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I. Armenia and several nations around the world recognize it as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Turkey denies that the massacres were genocide, saying that the death toll is inflated and Armenians were killed in civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
Turkey and Armenia are nearing an end to the long-simmering feud between the nations. The two countries signed agreements for reconciliation in October, but the deals still need to be approved by their parliaments. The agreements call for the establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of their border.
-- Associated Press