Honor Their Memory: 100 Years Later, It's Time to Recognize the Armenian Genocide

Armenians attend service in Echmiadzin, the religious center of the Armenian Church outside the Armenian capital, Yerevan, Th
Armenians attend service in Echmiadzin, the religious center of the Armenian Church outside the Armenian capital, Yerevan, Thursday, April 23, 2015. The Armenian Apostolic Church, the country's dominant religion, held services Thursday to canonize all victims. On Friday, April 24, Armenians will mark the centenary of what historians estimate to be the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks, an event widely viewed by scholars as genocide. Turkey, however, denies the deaths constituted genocide and says the death toll has been inflated. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

On April 24, the arc of the moral universe will intersect with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Many will bear witness to that intersection, but official recognition of the genocide by the United States government will be sadly and conspicuously absent.

Let us review the facts. In 1915, more than 1.5 million Armenians were systematically annihilated by Ottoman-era Turkish authorities. Men, women and children were massacred, deported and condemned to death marches into the Syrian Desert where they died of thirst and starvation. No final rites, no burial -- an assault on the dignity of a dignified and proud people. This indisputable tragedy of history has been acknowledged by innumerable scholars and historians, including the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and no less than 53 Nobel Laureates. The European Parliament and Pope Francis recently joined the chorus that honestly labels this horrific chapter of Turkey's history a genocide.

Hopelessly infected by the disease of denial, modern-day Turkish authorities have now made it clear they were never going to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the Genocide with anything approaching candor, honesty or the most minimal degree of self-reflection. But it heaps insult upon injury that they have chosen the Genocide anniversary date of April 24 to commemorate something wholly different -- the 100th anniversary of the landing of British imperial forces at Gallipoli (a landing that actually occurred the next day on April 25, 1915).

Turkey's treatment of the Armenian Genocide is no surprise. It is a conditioned reflex that has been codified into the laws of the state. In Turkey, anyone who uses the word "genocide" to describe the massacre of the Armenians is subject to criminal punishment under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.

Obviously, we should have dramatically higher expectations for our own country. That is the reason that as a member of Congress who has long supported a resolution to recognize the Armenian Genocide, I have dreaded the prospect that the 100th anniversary would come and go without official recognition from either the United States Congress or the President of the United States. I share the deep disappointment and sense of betrayal felt by the Armenian people and all who support their cause. It is lamentable that on Capitol Hill, advocacy for recognition is being undermined everyday by Turkey's intense lobbying campaign to block passage of the Armenian Genocide resolution.

In the face of this, it is easy to be cynical and angry. But we should remind ourselves -- and be inspired -- that on April 24, hundreds of thousands of Americans will defy the lack of official recognition with their own personal and heartfelt acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide. In Turkey, there are brave citizens who, at great personal risk, condemn state authorities for their tragic silence. Ultimately, the voices of individual citizens have a special power to move the heart -- in this instance to bless the unmarked graves of 1.5 million Armenians whose own voices and spirits were trampled into the ground 100 years ago.

This year, I will resist the temptation to mark the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide with anger and frustration at the lack of official recognition from those who should know better. Rather, I will draw strength from the conviction that the arc of the moral universe ultimately will bend toward justice -- toward the eternal memory of those who perished in this undeniable tragedy of history.

Congressman John Sarbanes represents Maryland's Third Congressional District.