WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Saturday became the first U.S. president to acknowledge the killing of more than a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks more than a century ago as genocide, a move that could complicate an already strained relationship between the U.S. and Turkey.
Biden’s predecessors have acknowledged the mass killing of Armenians but stopped short of using the term genocide due to Turkish objections. As a candidate, Biden said he would make the designation, and a bipartisan group of members of Congress urged Biden to take action ahead of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which is observed on April 24 and marks the beginning of the atrocities in 1915.
“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” Biden said in a statement.
For Turks, the issue is an emotionally charged one wrapped up in feelings of national pride. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned the Biden administration that the designation would harm relations with the U.S. and be met with a strong reaction.
“Words cannot change or rewrite history,” he tweeted Saturday. “We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice. We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.”
Turkey has been a key strategic partner for the U.S., but Biden was critical of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the campaign.
Biden spoke to Erdogan for the first time as president on Friday. During the call he conveyed “his interest in a constructive bilateral relationship with expanded areas of cooperation and effective management of disagreements,” the White House said in a statement. The leaders agreed to meet at the NATO summit in June, the White House said.
Concerns about straining the U.S. relationship with Turkey have led past presidents, including former President Barack Obama, to back down on campaign promises to declare the killings to be genocide. Turkey, a NATO member, has been valuable in the United States’ military involvement in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
In the early months of his presidency, Biden has said he is trying to walk a line between the need to take a stand against human rights violations while maintaining relationships with America’s strategic partners.
The killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians took place starting in 1915 when they were deported to the Syrian desert. There are disputes about how many people were killed, but the International Association of Genocide Scholars puts the death toll at “more than a million.”
Turkish officials have denied the killings were genocide, saying they did not represent a systematic effort to wipe out the Armenian people. Scholars disagree, and more than 20 countries have formally recognized the killings as genocide.