Page last updated at 12:43 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Turkish thinkers' Armenia apology

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Men stand besides the skulls and corpses of Armenian victims of the Turkish deportation circa 1915
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died while being forced out of Turkey

An internet petition has been launched in Turkey, apologising for the "great catastrophe of 1915" when hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians died.

Many international historians say the massacres and deaths of Armenians during their forced removal from what is now eastern Turkey were "genocide".

Turkey firmly denies that, saying those who died were just victims of war.

The petition - the first of its kind - was initiated by prominent Turkish academics and newspaper columnists.

They say they want to challenge the official denial and provoke discussion in Turkish society about what happened.

The petition is entitled "I apologise".

A short statement at the top reads: "My conscience cannot accept the ignorance and denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and - on my own behalf - I share the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers - and I apologise to them."

It is a bold and original step in a country where writer Hrant Dink was killed just last year for openly saying that the events of 1915 were genocide.

Previously he had been tried for "insulting Turkishness" for his comments on 1915 - as was Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel prize-winning author, who said that a million Armenians were killed "in these lands" and no-one dared talk about it.

Sparking discussion

Nationalist politicians have condemned the move as an insult to the Turkish nation, and the organisers have received abusive emails.

A group of some 60 former Turkish ambassadors has issued a counter statement, calling this petition unfair and contrary to Turkey's national interests .

Turkey admits that many Armenians were killed but it denies any genocide, saying the deaths happened during widespread fighting in World War I.

The petition does not call on the state to apologise for what happened and it deliberately avoids the highly controversial definition of genocide.

But the Turkish academic who dreamed up the idea says he hopes it will spark a proper discussion of what happened and promote empathy for what the Armenians suffered.

Cengiz Aktar called it the responsibility of all Turks to think and talk openly about how, and why, the Armenian people disappeared from a land they inhabited for 4,000 years.

"Our aim is to empathise with the grief of our Armenian brothers," he said.

The petition's authors say they have received many encouraging comments.

In the first few hours after the petition was launched, more than 1,000 people had signed their names beneath it.

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