WASHINGTON — In a new twist to efforts to call attention to the Armenian genocide, a group of lawmakers has accused the Obama administration of blocking a Smithsonian display of a rug woven by orphans of the mass killings about a century ago.
The lawmakers have written President Obama urging him to make available the rug, presented in 1925 to President Calvin Coolidge and in storage as part of the White House collection, for exhibition. The bipartisan group includes more than a dozen representatives from California, which has a large Armenian American population.
The roughly 12-foot-by-18-foot Armenian Orphan Rug was to be featured in a Dec. 16 exhibit at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington that sought to call attention to a new book about the rug, which the lawmakers called a "pivotal icon related to the Armenian Genocide."
A White House spokeswoman said Tuesday that displaying the rug "for only half a day in connection with a private book launch event, as proposed, would have been an inappropriate use of U.S. government property, would have required the White House to undertake the risk of transporting the rug for limited public exposure, and was not viewed as commensurate with the rug's historical significance."
Aram S. Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, attributed the decision to politics, contending it was due to the administration "catering to the Turkish government's sensitivities about the Armenian genocide."
"It is without a doubt a political decision," he said in an interview. Hamparian was in New York City on Tuesday to take up the issue with the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John A. Heffern.
An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks as the empire was dissolving during World War I, an episode historians have concluded was a genocide. But Turkey has contended that Turks and Armenians were casualties of war, famine and disease.
In September a Smithsonian curator wrote the Armenian Cultural Foundation and Armenian Rugs Society, which were helping to organize the exhibit, that the White House decided that "it cannot lend" the rug for the exhibit. "Needless to say this was a great surprise and disappointment to us here," Paul Michael Taylor, Smithsonian's director of Asian Cultural History Program, wrote.
The rug, composed of more than 4 million hand-tied knots, was presented to Coolidge in appreciation for U.S. humanitarian assistance. It features more than 100 images of animals, according to Hagop Martin Deranian, a 91-year-old Massachusetts dentist whose book "President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug" was to have been featured at the rug exhibit.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who helped gather the signatures of 30 other lawmakers on a letter to the White House, called the White House decision "as inexplicable as it is hurtful to the Armenian community."
"It is difficult to express in words how deeply troubling it is that a historical and cultural treasure accepted by President Coolidge on behalf of the people of the United States may be being kept behind closed doors because of Turkish desire to keep discussion of certain historical facts out of the public discussion," Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J), co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, wrote the White House in a separate letter.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) also wrote the White House urging that the rug be put on permanent display at the Smithsonian: "We must acknowledge and learn from the tragic crimes against humanity that orphaned the weavers of this rug to ensure that they are never repeated." Neither Schiff nor Sherman have received a White House response.
The controversy over the rug, first reported by the Washington Post, is the latest development on an issue that has roiled Capitol Hill for years.
A House panel in 2010 passed a resolution to officially recognize the mass killings between 1915 and 1918 as genocide, but the measure never made it to the House floor for a vote after Turkey recalled its ambassador in protest and U.S. officials warned it could damage U.S. relations with Turkey, an important ally.
In 2007, after a majority of House members signed on as co-sponsors, the resolution appeared headed toward approval. But two dozen lawmakers withdrew their support after the George W. Bush administration and Turkish government warned that passage of the resolution could lead Turkey to block U.S. access to its air bases used to get supplies to U.S. troops in Iraq.