YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Actor George Clooney presented a $1.1 million award on the 101st anniversary of a massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks to a Burundi woman who offered sanctuary to thousands of orphans in the middle of a civil war there.
The killing of more than 200 Armenian intellectuals on April 24, 1915 is regarded as the start of the massacre that is widely viewed by historians as the first genocide of the 20th century in which they estimate 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered.
Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman Empire, vehemently rejects that the deaths constitute genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.
Clooney presented the first Aurora Prize, an award recognizing an individual's work to advance humanitarian causes, to Marguerite Barankitse, who saved thousands of lives and cared for orphans and refugees amid the Burundi civil war. Armenian philanthropists selected her for the award.
Clooney has been a prominent voice in favor of countries recognizing the killings as genocide, which the U.S. hasn't done.
Before he presented the award, Clooney reminded the audience that Adolf Hitler once reportedly said: "Who remembers Armenia?" Clooney said: "The whole world."
"By recognizing Marguerite Barankitse's courage, commitment and sacrifice, I am hopeful that she can also inspire each one of us to think about what we can do to stand up on behalf of those whose rights are abused and are in most need of our solidarity or support," Clooney said.
President Barack Obama declined on Friday to refer to the 1915 massacre as genocide, breaking a key campaign promise as his presidency nears an end. Obama called the massacre the first mass atrocity of the 20th century and a tragedy that mustn't be repeated.
Clooney, along with Armenian leaders and international dignitaries, earlier on Sunday attended a service at a hilltop memorial in the capital, Yerevan, led by Armenian church leader Catholicos Karekin II to commemorate the massacre victims.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a message commemorating Armenians who died in 1915, without making any reference to the massacre.
In a statement that was read during a ceremony at an Armenian church in Istanbul, Erdogan said he welcomed the commemoration "to share the grief endured by the Ottoman Armenians, as well as to honor their memories."
Erdogan criticized efforts "to politicize history through a bitter rhetoric of hate and enmity and strive to alienate the two neighboring nations."
In a commemorative speech, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan on Sunday mentioned a recent flare-up of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is officially a part of Azerbaijan but has been under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military since a separatist war ended in 1994.
He lashed out at Azerbaijan for what he described as plans to drive all Armenians away from the region and pledged to protect Armenians living there.
Fighting earlier this month marked the worst violence since 1994 and both sides on Sunday reported the shelling of their positions by enemy fire.
Both sides on Sunday reported attacks on their positions. Azerbaijan's defense ministry said it destroyed an Armenian tank, a claim that Karabakh separatists denied.
Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Aida Sultanova in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story has been corrected to show that a message from Turkey's president was read out at an Armenian church in Istanbul, not that he visited.