Détente for genocide controversy

March 31, 2006

Academics have agreed to a unique co-operation over the issue of Turkey's genocide against its Armenian population.

The proposal to bring together historians on both sides of the debate was made at a three-day conference at Istanbul University.

Yusuf Halaçoglu, president of the Turkish Historical Society and a proponent of the view that no genocide occurred, initiated the plan. "Let's carry out a project together, dig up common graves if there are some, to put an end to numerous demagogical arguments," he said.

The offer was accepted by Ara Sarafian of the Gomidas Institute, a centre for Armenian study.

Safak Ural, conference organiser, welcomed the initiative: "If we fail to explain this problem to our own people, we cannot explain it to others. In order to explain it, we should discuss it."

Two years ago, a meeting planned between Armenian and Turkish academics was cancelled, with each side blaming the other for its failure. Such is the mutual hostility that opposing academics rarely meet.

Mesut Parlak, rector of Istanbul University, described the conference as the "most comprehensive of all meetings to date". Boghos Levon Zekiyan, professor of Armenian Studies at Ca' Foscari University in Venice, said the greatest novelty was the fact the conference had occurred.

"It was the first time a respectable state institution broke the taboo of the Armenian genocide by giving all invited scholars who do not share the official Turkish view an opportunity," he said.

Dozens of invitations were sent to academics who hold the view that genocide against Armenians occurred in what is now Turkey between 1915 and 1923, although fewer than a dozen attended and only four spoke.

Even so, their presence is seen as a significant change in Turkey, where until recently to claim genocide had occurred could have led to prosecution and imprisonment.

Fears that the conference would be marred by nationalist demonstrations proved unfounded.

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