- (Photo: Reuters/Stringer)
France's legislature voted 127 to 86 on Monday in favor of passing a bill that would criminalize the denial that the mass killing of Christian Armenians in 1915 Ottoman-ruled Turkey was genocide.
The passage of the bill has stirred controversy among France's Turkish population indicating a possible strain on the country's Christian-Muslim relations.
The new bill, which will now go to French President Nicolas Sarkozy for signature, would charge violators a fine of $58,000 and could possibly lead to a jail term for denying that Turkey carried out genocide against its Christian Armenian population in 1915.
According to the law, people could also be punished for "outrageously" minimizing deaths.
The bill has caused a deep fracture in the already strained diplomatic relations between the two NATO allies and Turkish Prime Minister Recaep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled the bill "racist and discriminatory."
The term genocide has been widely accepted in reference to the extreme number of Armenians killed at the hands of Turks in the early part of the last century.
Turkey, however, has vehemently denied that the deaths of Armenians were carried out with genocidal intent and maintains that the number of deaths, which occurred between 1915-1916, was significantly smaller than what most estimates suggest. The country maintains that the deaths occurred in the context of a war-torn Europe and that lives were lost on both sides during fighting that occurred in eastern Turkey.
According to some estimates, 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of exposure, starvation, and deliberate shootings on behalf of Ottoman leaders.
Turks from across Western Europe traveled to the French capital to protest the bill this past weekend and on Monday Turkish leaders called upon French senators to reject the passage of the bill, arguing that it violates freedom of speech.
Supporters of the bill argue that it does not directly target Turkish communities in the country because it criminalizes any denial of examples of genocide as defined by the French state.
France defines both the death of Jews and Roma populations during the Holocaust as genocide, and also defines the mass killings of Tutsis' and moderate Hutu's in Rwanda in 1994 as genocide. In 2001, it voted to formally define the deaths of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide.
The current head of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, sent a letter to Sarkozy expressing his delight at the passage of the bill.
"From the spiritual center of all Armenians - the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin - we extend our greetings and blessing to You, the French officials, the brotherly people of France, and express our gratitude for the adoption of the bill by the French Senate that outlaws the denial of the Armenian Genocide," the letter read.
The Armenian government has lauded also the passage of the bill calling it "historic" and saying that France reaffirmed its position in the international community as a human rights defender.
"This day is exceptional for all those, who are struggling for the protection of human rights and for the condemnation and prevention of crimes against humanity," the letter to Sarkozy from Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan read.
Nevertheless, Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan said that Sarkozy, whose party endorsed the bill, was spreading Islamophobia to gain a handle over the French Armenian vote in upcoming elections.
"We cannot understand how Sarkozy can sacrifice a decision that should be made by historians for his own electoral gains," Erdogan said.
The prime minister also promised he would never set foot on French soil again if the bill passed.
"This is a racist and discriminatory approach and if you cannot see it then you are deaf to the footsteps of fascism in Europe," Erdogan said on Tuesday following the passage of the vote.
Political analysts have suggested that the adoption of the bill will hamper diplomatic relations between the two powers, but few have commented on the impact the bill could have on relations between Christian and Muslim communities.
Religious intolerance has been a topic of much debate in France, which is home to Europe's largest Muslim population, much of which comes from North Africa.
However, Dr. Stephan Croucher, co-author of the book, "Religious Misperceptions: The Case of Muslims and Christians in France and Britain," does not think that the passage of the bill will result in the type of upheaval witnessed in the country in 2004 following a legal ban on wearing religious symbols in public schools.
Croucher, however, believes that the new bill might lead to further disenfranchisement of Muslim communities, particularly Turkish Muslim communities, in France.
"There's always been Christians not being the most supportive or welcoming of Muslims as a whole in France and I think this is just another example of it," Croucher told The Christian Post.
Although most Muslims are not likely to perceive the passage of the bill as a positive step in relations between the religious communities, Turkish Muslims in particular are likely to feel "persecuted" over the bill, according to Croucher, who believes that its passage will likely lead to more "disenchantment with the French experience" for Turks and Muslims in the country.
However, Croucher does not believe that the bill will lead to any significant social discord or added fracture between Christian-Muslim relations in the country.