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Armenian genocide anniversary divides Lebanese Cabinet

Sunni and Christian factions in Lebanon are unable to agree on whether to observe the centennial of the Armenian genocide.
People light candles in memory of the victims of mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the main cathedral in Echmiadzin, April 23, 2015. Armenia's president said on Wednesday he was ready to normalize relations with Turkey, two months after he withdrew peace accords from parliament, blaming a Turkish lack of political will to end 100 years of hostility.  REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili - RTX19YTQ

The 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide has led to a governmental and societal split in Beirut, not only regarding Lebanon’s representation at the commemorative ceremonies to be held in Armenia and Turkey, but also regarding the official Lebanese government's position.

In a Cabinet session held April 21 to discuss the public budget, ministers suddenly brought up the topic of the Armenian genocide, thus causing controversy. Ministers suggested that the Lebanese government issue a decree declaring April 24, 2015, a national holiday to mark the occasion of the centennial.

A governmental source who requested anonymity told Al-Monitor that Christian ministers had made the request. However, Sunni ministers soon presented their reservations on the issue, including Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk and Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tammam Salam — also a Sunni — showed no excitement.

The source said that the ensuing debate was political and did not take on a sectarian character, at least in form. However, the parties that expressed their positions represented different sectarian affiliations.

The ministers calling for a holiday stated that the centennial of the genocide is an exceptional event, a historic landmark taking place only once a century. The source said that according to this view, the Lebanese Armenian community is deeply tied to this sad occasion. Therefore, the Lebanese state has to sympathize with this community and show solidarity on the anniversary of the martyrdom of more than a million Armenians.

Advocates of the holiday made absolutely no mention of the Armenian-Christian identity of the victims or the Muslim identity of the Sunni Ottoman Empire, which they consider responsible for the genocide. Sunni ministers objecting to the holiday also did not entangle their positions with the issue of religious affiliation. Instead, they stressed the need to take into account the existing friendly relations between Turkey and Lebanon, as well as the fact that, given the Turkish state's influence in the region, it would not be in Lebanon’s interest to announce such a holiday.

The source added that, on the surface, the Cabinet debate was an attempt to find a solution to best serve the national interest. However, the fact is, the debate camouflaged clear denominational and sectarian divisions.

The lack of consensus on the issue resulted in the motion being dropped. In an attempt to make it up to the Armenians, the Lebanese Cabinet supported a Ministry of Education decision to close down schools on April 24.

Some educational quarters rejected the decision of Minister of Education Elias Bou Saab, who happens to be Christian, to close down schools. These quarters, in turn, happened to be Muslim. Sunni associations in Beirut rushed to issue a statement objecting to school closures. They tied their objection to political arguments, citing Turkish positions and their interpretation of Lebanon’s interests in relation to Turkey. The issue of the Armenian genocide, they said, is “an issue of historical controversy and there is no Lebanese national consensus about its circumstances.”

Former Minister Panos Manjian, a leader in Lebanon's Armenian Tashnag Party, told Al-Monitor that the issue did not just start during the April 21 Cabinet session and that previous attempts had been made to announce a holiday. All of Lebanon's Armenian parties visited Salam a few days before the latest Cabinet session. A joint delegation from the Tashnag, Hanchak and Ramgavar parties met with Salam and presented to him the scheduled activities for the centennial of the genocide and asked him to pronounce April 24 a holiday.

Manjian told Al-Monitor that Salam was not receptive to the idea. While Manjian disapproved of this position, he said, “More than 200,000 Lebanese are Armenians, and they believe this issue to be existential and important for the formation of their political and national consciousness, especially considering that the case involves more than a million victims.”

Manjian said that Lebanese prime ministers, who are Sunni, “have been making decisions for 10 years to close down the country and declare public mourning on the anniversary of the assassination of one person.” Manjian is referring to the government decision to close down on Feb. 14 each year to commemorate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Manjian called on all Lebanese to show solidarity with Armenians on April 24 and express national unity by voluntarily closing down.

Former Minister Karim Pakradouni, an Armenian and descendant of genocide survivors, told Al-Monitor that the course of events on April 24 will not be determined by the prime minister. “There are large areas in Lebanon that will respond to the calls for closure, and a major demonstration will be held in Beirut to reflect this position,” he said.

Pakradouni, former head of the Kataeb Party, one of Lebanon's most prominent Christian parties, told Al-Monitor, “All Christian forces will show unity with the call of the Armenian community to close down, and a significant portion of non-Christians will also respond out of a humane compassion with the first genocide of the 20th century and out of national solidarity, which is required for coexistence in one nation.”

Once again, the vertical division in Lebanon seems to be stemming from the past and from history, and is therefore likely to continue into the future.

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