Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Monday he was “highly saddened” by US President Joe Biden’s decision to mark as genocide the mass deportations and massacres of Armenians in the early 20th century Ottoman Empire, calling it baseless and unjust, The Associated Press reported.
Erdoğan said Biden’s decision undermined Turkish-American relations but also expressed hope they would discuss that and other issues during a first face-to-face meeting in years at the June NATO summit and “open the doors of a new period.”
Otherwise, Erdoğan said, Turkey would have to take necessary steps but did not elaborate.
On Saturday Biden followed through on a campaign promise to recognize the events that began in 1915 and killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire — the precursor of modern Turkey — as genocide.
“We believe the expressions in the statement were included with the pressure of radical Armenian and anti-Turkish groups, but this situation does not resolve the destructive effects it has on bilateral relations,” Erdoğan said.
In his speech on Monday the Turkish president spoke at length about the events that started during World War I. Erdoğan said Armenian rebels killed many defenseless Turkish civilians since the men of military age were all away fighting.
He emphasized that historians should be studying the events and that the term “genocide” is too sensitive to be left to presidents or parliaments. He said the designation came into effect after 1948 and must be based on evidence and court decisions.
The Armenians — supported by historians and scholars — say 1.5 million of their people died in a genocide committed by the Young Turks government of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Turkey accepts that both Armenians and Turks died in huge numbers as Ottoman forces fought czarist Russia. But Ankara vehemently denies a deliberate policy of genocide.
Biden tried to temper the inevitable Turkish anger by calling Erdoğan for the first time since taking office in January.
The two leaders agreed in Friday’s phone call to meet on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June.
Turkey has long suggested forming a joint history commission with scholars on the matter, without result.
Erdogan said his country has “a clear conscience and assured heart” and did not believe in a “competition of pain.”
“If you call it genocide, go ahead and look in the mirror,” he added, arguing that millions suffered at the hands of European powers and the United States in recent centuries.
Earlier Monday, a small group of demonstrators gathered outside the American consulate in Istanbul to protest Biden’s decision.
A few dozen people held banners and chanted slogans. “Genocide is a lie, it’s an American plan,” they said. Demonstrators also demanded an end to the American military’s use of İncirlik Airbase In southern Turkey, shouting, “American soldiers, get out of Turkey!”
The US Consulate General in Istanbul and the embassy in Ankara were closed for routine visits until Wednesday after they issued a demonstration alert following Biden’s announcement.