The House of Representatives voted Tuesday to pass a resolution recognizing the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), sponsor of the resolution, said after the vote that “the House declared that it will no longer be party to the cause of genocide denial.”
“While we can never undo the atrocities of the Armenian genocide, this vote is a commitment that we will never forget and we will never again be intimidated into silence,” Schiff stated.
Schiff’s resolution, cosponsored by Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), states that it should be U.S. policy to recognize and commemorate the Armenian Genocide, and to promote education and remembrance of the genocide. It passed the House overwhelmingly, with 405 members voting in favor, 11 Republicans voting against, and three members voting “present.”
The resolution also recognizes the Ottoman Empire’s “campaign of genocide against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Arameans, Maronites, and other Christians.”
The resolution is non-binding, in that it simply expresses “the sense of the House of Representatives,” but it is still significant as the culmination of an almost-20-year effort in the U.S. House to pass such a resolution.
“This is a vote I have waited 19 years to cast; one that tens of thousands of my Armenian American constituents have waited decades to see,” Schiff said in his remarks on the House Floor on Tuesday.
The advocacy group In Defense of Christians released a statement on Tuesday, praising the vote.
“The Christians all across the Middle East were impacted by the Armenian Genocide. In Lebanon, 250,000 Maronites were starved to death by the Ottoman Empire,” Toufic Baaklini, president of In Defense of Christians, stated, noting that by the House’s action, the U.S. shows it “will no longer ignore the Turk’s history of ethnic cleansing.”
Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a statement following the House vote that the resolution “has apparently been drafted and issued for domestic consumption” and “is devoid of any historical or legal basis.”
The Armenian genocide, recognized as such by many scholars, occurred in the Ottoman Empire - now Turkey - from 1915-1923, with the systematic annihilation of the mostly Christian Armenian minority in eastern Anatolia.
Around 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have been killed, along with Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs. Millions more were displaced. Those targeted by the Ottomans suffered forced displacement, death marches, torture, rape, and mass killings.
Turkey has repeatedly denied that genocide took place, saying that the number of those killed was far less than some have estimated and that deaths were a result of conflicts related to the First World War.
A Vatican archive of documents was released in 2015, on the centenary of the genocide, showing the Holy See’s commitment, along with other Catholics, to help genocide victims in the region. The Vatican also worked to stem the tide of Christian persecution in the Ottoman Empire that had been occurring in the decades prior to 1915.
Pope Francis has referred to the killings as genocide multiple times, using the term at a Mass on Divine Mercy Sunday on April 12, 2015, ahead of the centenary.
A year later, speaking at the presidential palace in Armenia in June of 2016, the pope called the “genocide” the “‘Great Evil’ that struck your people” and said that it “was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.”
Members of Congress said that Tuesday’s vote was a significant step toward fighting silence and ignorance on the matter.
“Today, we end a century of international silence. There will not be another period of indifference or international ignorance to the lives lost to systematic murder,” Rep. Bilirakis stated on Tuesday. “Genocide is genocide, Mr. Speaker, even if our so-called strategic allies perpetrated it.”
“I found Pope Francis’ words and explicit use of the term ‘genocide’ to be another wake-up call for the world,” Bilirakis said on Tuesday, noting that Turkey’s recent military incursion into northern Syria resulted in “extremely concerning” acts committed against local populations including Kurds.
While U.S. officials have at times referred to the Ottoman Empire’s massacre of Armenians as “genocide,” officially recognizing the genocide committed a century ago has proved difficult because of the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a NATO member and geo-strategic ally.
The U.S. did submit a written statement on the Armenian genocide to the International Court of Justice in 1951, and President Ronald Reagan mentioned it by name in his proclamation on April 22, 1981; two joint congressional resolutions, H.J. Res. 148, adopted in 1975, and H.J. Res. 247, adopted in September of 1984, also recognized it.
Nevertheless, the Tuesday House resolution was the product of almost two full decades of preparation.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who chaired congressional hearings on the Armenian genocide in 2000 and 2015, said that support for a resolution on the genocide was squelched in the House due to pressure by the Clinton administration in 2000. A similar attempt in 2007 was unsuccessful, he noted.
Smith said Tuesday that 28 countries and 49 U.S. states have recognized the Armenian genocide “despite Turkish Government threats—and they do make threats.”
“As Pope Francis said at his Mass marking the 100th year of genocide: ‘Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it,’” Smith said.