As Southern California Armenian Americans laid wreaths at memorials and marched in memory of ancestors slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, their enormous hopes that President Obama would at last give official U.S. recognition to the genocide were bitterly dashed Friday.
During his campaign last year, Obama called the genocide "a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of evidence," pledged he would officially recognize it and criticized the Bush administration for not doing so. Such outspoken positions sparked overwhelming support from Armenian Americans, who expected he would be the first U.S. president to acknowledge the genocide on the April 24 memorial day.
On Friday, however, news that he had failed to fulfill his pledges provoked despair, disappointment and some anger that the century-long Armenian quest for recognition had once more been thwarted.
"Everybody's upset because he got all of our hopes up that he would recognize the genocide," said Adreneh Krikorian, a Van Nuys High School senior who joined thousands of others at a somber service and memorial ceremony at the Armenian Martyrs Memorial Monument in Montebello.
Some Armenian American activists said they were as annoyed at Armenia as they were with Obama over the failure to push the genocide issue. As Turkey and Armenia announced an agreement this week on a framework to normalize relations, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan told the Wall Street Journal that he did not want the genocide issue to obstruct the talks and was not pushing for U.S. recognition.
"Almost all Armenians in the world are very passionately concerned about genocide recognition, and there is despondency targeted at what appears to be Armenia playing along" with attempts to minimize the issue, said Andrew Kzirian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America's western regional office in Glendale.
Obama's statement Friday pointed only to his previous remarks, while avoiding the term many Turks find offensive. The Armenian genocide began in 1915 and claimed more than 1 million Armenian lives under the Ottoman Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey. The Turkish government disputes that a genocide took place.
"I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed," Obama said in his statement. "My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts."
His words provoked a range of emotions at memorial events that included a Los Angeles City Council commemoration, a march down Hollywood Boulevard to Little Armenia, the Montebello event, a protest at the Turkish Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard and a memorial concert in West Hollywood.
At the Turkish Consulate, thousands of protesters waved signs that said "Obama Keep the Promise" and "Shame on Turkey," while chanting "1915, never again!"
Arek Santikian, 21, a UCLA economics major who helped organize the protest for the Armenian Youth Federation, said he worked for a year on Obama's campaign and was devastated that the president skirted the genocide issue.
"When we are promised something this meaningful and it doesn't happen, it leaves us without hope," Santikian said. "And that was not his message."
As he leaned against a tree at the consulate, Zorik Mooradian, 52, held up a large canvas splashed with the Armenian flag colors of red, orange and blue and the words, "Obama . . . Keep the Promise."
"The founding fathers did not envision that we would compromise truth for politics," said the disappointed Mooradian, who has been coming to the protests for three decades.
The scene was more somber in Montebello, where clergy with the Armenian Apostolic, Catholic and evangelical churches held a service with incense, hymns and an Armenian-language liturgy. Rows of Armenian youths in youth-group uniforms lined a path for participants to walk as they laid roses, carnations, lilies and other flowers at the base of a genocide monument.
There, several people expressed disappointment at Obama but also political pragmatism and a renewed effort to work for recognition.
"Obviously we're disappointed but what can you do?" asked Artak Arakelian, 22, a USC student who was working at a table selling remembrance paraphernalia. "It just makes us work harder to make sure he fulfills his promise the next time."
Arshak Nazarian, a 48-year-old Glendale sculptor, views the issue as a matter of semantics and said it was far more important that Obama recognized and lamented the massacres. "If you say everything about genocide, what difference does it make if you don't use the word?" he asked. "As far as I'm concerned he has kept his promises."
Meanwhile, the Turkish Coalition of America applauded Obama for "deferring to historians" on the question.
"President Obama has sent a clear message to America and the world," said Lincoln McCurdy, coalition president. "His administration will not sacrifice long-term strategic allies for short-term political gains."
Obama's administration has a lot riding on U.S. relations with Turkey. Offending Ankara could put U.S. supply routes to Iraq and Afghanistan in danger and complicate other critical issues on the Obama agenda, including Middle East peace and Iran.
In his statement, Obama used the words "meds yeghern," the Armenian phrase for great calamity.
"Ninety-four years ago, one of the great atrocities of the 20th century began," the president wrote. "Each year, we pause to remember the 1.5-million Armenians who were subsequently massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. The meds yeghern must live on in our memories, just as it lives on in the hearts of the Armenian people."
Alexandra Zavis and Raja Abdulrahim contributed to this report.