WASHINGTON (AP) — To Armenian-Americans, the display Tuesday of a hand-woven rug at the White House Visitor's Center represented a hard-fought victory in their push for official recognition of the killings of their ancestors experienced nearly a century ago.
"It's a silent, beautiful rebuttal to those who deny the murder of a million-and-a-half people," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
Schiff was one of several members of Congress, including Reps. David Valadao, Jim Costa and Judy Chu of California, at the event. The lawmakers represent districts with thousands of Armenian-Americans.
The rug, hand-woven by orphans and delivered to President Calvin Coolidge in 1925, has mostly sat in storage since the Coolidge family returned it to the White House in 1982 as a gift. It measures 11.5 feet by 19 feet, took 18 months to complete and contains more than 4 million knots.
Armenian-Americans want the U.S. government to acknowledge that the deaths of their ancestors constituted a genocide, a term used to describe violence intended to destroy an entire group based on ethnicity, race or religion.
Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies that the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.
The United States does not call the deaths genocide; doing so could risk U.S. relations with Turkey, an important ally. Turkey withdrew its U.S. ambassador four years ago when a House panel approved a resolution branding the killing of Armenians as genocide. The resolution eventually stalled.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to recognize the deaths as genocide. But in a 2012 event, as president, he stopped short of using that term, calling it "one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century."
Mark Stroh, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said the president and other senior administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged as historical fact that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire
"(They have) stated that a full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts is in our all interests, including Turkey's, Armenia's and America's," Stroh said.
The rug was previously displayed in nonpublic settings as a result of extraordinary requests, Stroh said. In one instance, in the 1980s, for a member of Congress, and in the other, in the 1990s, to allow it to be seen in the White House by a woman involved in its making.
Among the first visitors to view the rug Tuesday was John Marshall Evans, who served as ambassador to Armenia for two years under President George W. Bush. Evans said he was replaced as ambassador 18 months after he described the Armenian deaths as genocide and that the U.S. needs to recognize the facts. He's not satisfied with the Obama administration's approach, either.
"It's a very miserly recognition," Evans said.
Lawmakers began a letter-writing campaign to the White House last year after reports that the display of the rug at the Smithsonian Castle had been cancelled. Stroh said the rug was not lent to the Smithsonian in that instance because its display for an afternoon would have been in support of a book launch, which he said would not have been appropriate.
Aram Hamparin, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said the display of the rug was progress but added, "We've let a foreign country impose a gag rule on what Americans can and cannot say on the Armenian genocide."