LOS ANGELES – Two recent life insurance settlements for decedents of Armenians killed 90 years ago by the Turkish Ottoman Empire are a first step toward international recognition that the bloodshed was an act of genocide, the Armenian pontiff said Sunday.
His Holiness Aram I, on a two week visit through Southern California, home to the largest Armenian community outside the Asian country, said the financial settlements could help prod Turkey and Turkish allies like the United States to declare the killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians in eastern Turkey a genocide.
“The settlements will be helpful in raising awareness,” Aram I said in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press. “If we are committed to preventing future genocide in the world, the world must recognize the genocide that has happened.”
Aram I, the spiritual head of one of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s two branches, said gaining recognition for the mass killings took on a religious meaning for thousands of Armenian families who fled Armenia during the turmoil and have yet to return.
The church is a focal point for the Armenian diaspora, including the estimated 500,000 Armenians living in Southern California.
“The crime and sin must be acknowledged by those who committed it,” Aram I said.
Turkey acknowledges that large numbers of Armenians died between 1915 and 1923, but says the totals have been exaggerated and that the deaths occurred in the civil unrest during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
France, Russia and many other countries have declared the killings genocide. Turkish allies including the United States and neighboring Azerbaijan have not.
Last week, French life insurance company AXA agreed to pay $17 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by descendants of Armenians killed, splitting the money between about 5,000 people and charities. That came after New York Life Insurance Co. and heirs of some 2,400 policyholders agreed last year to a $20 million settlement, believed to be the first in connection with the disputed event.
Turkey, which has no diplomatic ties with Armenia, is facing increasing international pressure to fully acknowledge the event as it seeks membership in the European Union.
It was the pontiff’s third trip to California since being elected in 1995 as head of the Great House of Cilicia, the diaspora branch of the church based in Lebanon.
During the visit, Aram I has lead a handful of masses at Armenian churches, met with local political leaders and spoken to groups including the World Affairs Council of Los Angeles.
The church’s other branch, the Catholicosate of All Armenians, is headquartered in Armenia. Its pontiff, His Holiness Karekin II, visited California in June.
The church split administratively more than 50 years ago while Armenia was under the control of the Soviet Union.
Aram I said the division turned out to be a “blessing” because it allowed the Armenian Church to better connect with millions of Armenians living abroad.
Less than 3 million live in Armenia while more than 1 million live in the United States. There are also large numbers in Lebanon, Iran and Syria.
“At this point, the two centers are serving their people,” said Aram I when asked if the administrative centers might someday consolidate. “What will happen in the future, nobody knows.”