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Biden Called On To Recognize As Genocide Armenian Deaths A Century Ago

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tomorrow is the day that Armenians around the world mark what they call Genocide Remembrance Day. President Biden is expected to mark that day also by taking a big symbolic step - using that word, genocide, about the massacres of Armenians a century ago. At least he promised he would do that when he was a candidate. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Every year, the White House goes through verbal gymnastics to acknowledge the atrocities committed against Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I while avoiding the term genocide under pressure from ally Turkey. Biden, as a candidate, used that word last year. And lawmakers expect him to become the first U.S. president in decades to do so while in office.

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DAVID VALADAO: Madam Speaker, I rise today in recognition of the 106th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

KELEMEN: Congressman David Valadao represents a district in California that's home to many Armenian Americans. He and over a hundred of his colleagues sent a letter to Biden this week.

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VALADAO: Around the world, leaders have rightly identified these horrific events as genocide. However, despite both the House of Representatives and the Senate passing resolutions in 2019 recognizing this tragedy, no United States president has ever joined in the acknowledgment.

KELEMEN: Turkey denies the label, saying it was part of widespread conflict. But historians say the massacres of well over a million Armenians that started in 1915 amounted to genocide. Another member of Congress from California, Michelle Steel, says it's past time for the U.S. president to acknowledge it.

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MICHELLE STEEL: So many years later, people still do not call these events a genocide. If we do not teach an accurate history, we are doomed to repeat it.

KELEMEN: Democrats on Capitol Hill and Biden's own team are raising expectations about a statement on Saturday. His nominee to run America's aid agency, Samantha Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book about genocide prevention, writes on Twitter, quote, "telling the truth and standing up to bullies and genocide deniers will be of enormous consequence." Turkey is warning that such a move will harm already strained relations. But Gonul Tol of the Middle East Institute doesn't think Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will do anything dramatic.

GONUL TOL: Erdogan's leverage has diminished. And with Turkey's economy suffering, the Turkish leader's reaction could be muted. He could recall the newly appointed Turkish ambassador to Washington. But I don't foresee a more dramatic response beyond that, particularly at a time when Erdogan is trying to mend ties with the West.

KELEMEN: She's waiting to see what Biden says on Saturday.

TOL: This is a chance for him to stand up on human rights.

KELEMEN: Beyond recognizing past atrocities, Tol hopes to see the U.S. focus more on human rights violations happening now. State Department spokesperson Ned Price says that has already been part of this administration's dealings with Turkey.

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NED PRICE: As friends, as allies, when we have disagreements, we raise those. We discuss those. And there's no papering over them.

KELEMEN: But he wouldn't preview the Biden administration's plans to mark what Armenians call the Genocide Remembrance Day on Saturday or describe any conversations U.S. officials may have had with Turkey ahead of time.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "PATH OF TOTALITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.