Many scholars and some countries call the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire the 20th century’s first genocide. Modern Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman Empire, vehemently rejects the charge.

Share story

VAGHARSHAPAT, Armenia — Life had barely begun for Khosrov Frangyan when he knew the fear of being an Armenian in the Ottoman Empire.

A century later, the memories still torment him.

“Somebody told us that Turks will come and start killing us,” said the 105-year-old, recalling how he and fellow villagers hid atop a mountain. “Turkish soldiers came and wanted to come up … We did not have weapons, so we started to throw stones and rocks on them.”

Frangyan and his family managed to escape by boat to Beirut and then on to Armenia. He now lives with his children and grandchildren in Vagharshapat, 12 miles outside the capital, Yerevan. But an estimated 1.5 million Armenians died in the massacres, deportations and forced marches that began in 1915.

Armenia, many scholars and some countries call it the 20th century’s first genocide. Modern Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman Empire, vehemently rejects the charge. Whatever it is called, the violence gouged a psychic wound so deep that it pains Armenians born generations later.

The annual April 24 commemorations mark the day some 250 Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in what is regarded as the first step of the massacres. For Armenians, it is always an emotional event. But this year’s centennial is especially fraught.

As the flame of living memory flickers out — Armenia counts only 28 residents as survivors of the massacre — demands mount for its recognition as genocide. Armenia notched some victories in that campaign this year. Pope Francis recognized it as genocide, as did the European Parliament. Kim Kardashian’s visit to her ancestral homeland drew wide attention to the issue in celebrity-enamored circles that normally would pay little heed to history.

Yet Armenians are fuming that one major prize has eluded them: genocide recognition by the United States. Great bitterness followed the news that President Obama would not use the centennial to call the killings genocide, despite his campaign promise in 2008 to do so. Armenians believe he is letting Turkey’s strategic value as a NATO member — and its role in absorbing refugees from the Syrian conflict — fog his moral compass.

“Obama’s surrender to Turkey represents a national disgrace,” said Ken Hachikian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America.

The U.S. is sending a relatively low-visibility delegation to the commemorations, led by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. But Russia will be represented at the highest possible level by President Vladimir Putin and France by President François Hollande. France has been the most vigorous European country in the genocide-recognition campaign, and Hollande’s government is pushing for a law punishing genocide denial.

Turkey, in turn, is resentful. It recalled its ambassador from the Vatican, and bristled at suggestions that it chose to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Gallipoli on the same day to draw attention away from Armenia.

In Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chided Armenia and the Armenian diaspora for focusing only on their losses during what he called “a relocation of the Armenian population to the farther parts of the empire” during World War I.

“Thirty million people died, and why are you highlighting the Armenian citizens?” he said. “More than 4 million Muslims died during the war.”

Erdogan said the number Armenians cites, 1.5 million, is an exaggeration.

“The numbers used by Armenians have no basis and no reason,” he told a crowd of more than 1,000 as he concluded a “peace summit” to mark the centenary of the Allied landing at Gallipoli.

He added: “We feel sorry and sad for Armenians who died in World War I.”

Erdogan spoke midway through a two-day commemoration of Gallipoli, where Allied troops tried and failed to seize a key promontory to the Dardanelles that would have allowed them to capture Constantinople, as Istanbul was then known.

The expression of “feeling sad and sorry” fell well short of Armenia’s demand that he acknowledge the mass deaths as a genocide.

But this week the Erdogan government sounded a conciliatory note, announcing that a service commemorating Armenian victims would be allowed at the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, a first. It was unclear whether the word “genocide” would be used. Erdogan said he’d send a Cabinet minister to the service.

Friday’s main commemoration ceremonies in Armenia, meanwhile, are being held at the memorial complex on a hill that looms over Yerevan. The Armenian Apostolic Church, the country’s dominant religion, on Thursday held services to canonize all victims as martyrs.

In Yerevan, an estimated 60,000 people jammed the capital’s main square late Thursday for a free concert by System of a Down, a metal band of Americans of Armenian descent that has drawn attention for advocating the deaths be called genocide.

Armenia contends the movement toward genocide recognition is irreversible.

“The Turkish leadership remains alone on the sinking ship of denial,” said Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian.