October 12, 2007 / 6:10 PM / 12 years ago

Armenian-American clout buys genocide breakthrough

GLENDALE, California (Reuters) - At 93, Armenian American filmmaker Michael Hagopian may finally see his community’s clout pay off if the U.S. Congress recognizes the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.

Leaders from various religious faiths look out to the Washington Monument from the steps of the Jefferson Memorial before a press conference on religious freedom in Washington, October 11, 2007. The press conference came the day after the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution branding the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One as genocide -- a charge Turkey hotly denies. REUTERS/Jason Reed

“U.S. representatives in Congress and state governments now realize the Armenian community has a lot of political power and they can make contributions to political causes and various parties,” said Hagopian, best known for his film “The Forgotten Genocide”.

This week, the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution branding the massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 as genocide, brushing aside President George W. Bush’s warnings that it would harm relations with Turkey, a key ally.

Rep. Adam Schiff, whose district around the city of Los Angeles includes a large Armenian American community, was one of several lawmakers who pushed for the resolution after heavy lobbying by constituents.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also represents many Armenian Americans, seems determined to bring the non-binding resolution to a vote in the full House probably next month. It is unclear if and when the Senate will follow suit.

Turkey argues that both Turks and Armenians were killed in the years of violence and warfare that accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

It is a crime in Turkey to portray the killings as “genocide” and Ankara recalled its ambassador to Washington after Wednesday’s vote to express its anger.

There are an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million Americans with Armenian forefathers and many grew up hearing horrific stories of the massacres. After years of lobbying, they are surprised and pleased to see their cause making headlines around the world.

“The community is surprised but also rather happy that an issue that is close to their hearts is playing out in a prominent way in mainstream American media,” said Ara Khachatourian, editor of the daily newspaper Asbarez published in the city of Glendale.

Nowhere is Armenian influence more visible than in Glendale, a city of 200,000 near downtown Los Angeles, where 40 percent of the population is Armenian.

The community’s wealth is on display in the plethora of restaurants, bakeries and banquet halls and the parking lots overflowing with luxury cars. Elders meet in shopping centers and city parks, chatting in Armenian and playing table games.

Khachatourian’s newspaper has played a major role in getting this increasingly wealthy and organized community behind the cause, encouraging readers to write e-mails and make phone calls to congressional offices.

“You can talk to any Armenian and you can see they have had a survivor or victim of genocide in their family,” said Khachatourian, 39, who was born in Iran.

But Armenian Americans stress that this genocide resolution goes far beyond their own community.

“Genocides are still happening — the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda,” said Jerry Papazian, a third generation Armenian American.

“Some argue that if there had been more of an outcry after 1915 maybe the Holocaust would not have occurred.”

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