BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters of Armenian descent clashed with security forces Thursday during a demonstration against the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Members of the Armenian community in Lebanon organized the protest in Downtown Beirut to condemn Erdogan’s two-day visit, which started Wednesday. Erdogan had met with Lebanon’s three top officials and held visits to north and south Lebanon to inaugurate a school and a hospital.
The peaceful protest turned violent when a number of demonstrators tore up a large poster of Erdogan hanging opposite the landmark Martyrs statue and hurled rocks and black oil toward the banner.
“Security forces countered the rioters by beating up some, but no one was seriously hurt,” an eyewitness said.
However, a security source speaking to The Daily Star denied any rock hurling had occurred and said the incident was limited to “fistfights.”
Takhnak Party MP Hagop Pakradounian intervened to calm the situation and contacted Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud to negotiate with security forces.
“Pakradounian insisted the demonstration remained calm because Erdogan was on an official visit to Lebanon,” the source added.
However, the Turkish prime minister’s picture was removed “to preserve the dignity of martyrs and to pay respect to their souls,” Pakradounian said, noting that the poster insulted both the Lebanese and Armenian people.
A similar protest was held by the Armenian community in Lebanon Wednesday outside the airport, while a rival gathering of more than 100 Lebanese students welcomed Erdogan.
Lebanon counts about 150,000 Armenians, mostly made up of the descendants of those who survived the massacres in eastern Anatolia during the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The Armenian community still harbors deep animosity toward Turkey over the 1915 killings and says up to 1.5 million Armenians were slain.
However, Turkey rejects the label of the killings as genocide and argues that 300,000-500,000 Armenians died in civil strife when Armenians sided with invading Russian troops.
Armenian politician and Future Movement MP Serge Torsarkissian said the stance of the Armenian community in Lebanon was “a shy one because it was concerned with preserving Lebanon’s interests.” He then called on all Lebanese to hang on to their identity, especially the Armenian community.
Concerning the visit, Torsarkissian refused to describe it as “supportive of a particular sect” and stressed that the Armenian community would not stand in the face of Lebanon’s interests, whether in terms of the country’s relations with Turkey or any other interest.
“The community is committed to its historic stance,” he added.
For his part, Armenian Orthodox Archbishop in Lebanon Kegham Khatcherian warned Lebanon and the Arab world against surrendering their leadership to foreign powers, saying “we are protesting in Martyrs Square not against an official visit or against an agreement, but to prove to this visitor [Erdogan] and to the entire world that we will not keep quiet about our inherited right.”
Turkish and Armenian authorities took their first step in Zurich last year toward ending decades of hostilities, but could not agree on the labeling of the World War I killings.
Nonetheless, Turkish President Abdullah Gul confirmed Thursday his country was firmly committed to pushing on with normalizing ties with Armenia. His comments were made during a two-day visit to Switzerland. “It is evident that these subjects are not easily resolved,” said Gul. “But we maintain our firm commitment for the protocols, which aims for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relationship, to enter into vigor,” he said.