Yona Metzger

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Israel's Chief Rabbi Remembers Armenian Genocide Victims

By Anna Saghabalian

Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger referred to the 1915-1918 massacres of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide and prayed for its estimated 1.5 million victims at the end of a two-day visit to Armenia on Tuesday.

Metzger, the first Israeli religious leader to set foot on Armenian soil, spoke of deep emotion and pain as he visited the genocide memorial complex in Yerevan together with Garegin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Standing by its eternal fire, Metzger said a prayer in remembrance of the dead.

`I would definitely use the term genocide,' he told reporters at the Tsitsernakabert memorial. `The photographs and documents that we saw at the Genocide Museum say it all. And the tears that we barely held back as walked through the museum were not contrived.'

`Nobody can feel the pain of the Armenians more deeply than we Jews,' he added.

Metzger, who was elected chief rabbi in April 2003, arrived in Armenia at Garegin's invitation on Monday. The two men met at the Echmiadzin headquarters of the Armenian Church later in the day.

A statement by Garegin's office said they exchanged information about religious affairs and discussed historical links between the Armenian and Jewish peoples. `It was noted during the meeting that historical developments fraternized the Armenian and Jewish peoples, leading them to develop mutual affection and respect,' said the statement.

Metzger stressed at Tsitsernakabert that religion is strictly separated from the state in Israel, implying that his view on the Armenian genocide should not be associated with the Israeli government's position on the subject. The Jewish state refuses to recognize the 1915 mass killings as genocide, anxious not to alienate Turkey with which it maintains close political and security ties.

But a growing number of Israeli politicians and especially scholars are calling for a change in this policy. Among them is Yuri Stern, a member of the Israeli parliament who accompanied Metzger on the Armenia trip. He drew parallels between the Armenian genocide and the Jewish Holocaust.

`Hitler's remark that the world didn't care about the Armenian tragedy was not accidental,' Stern said. `For those assassins who exterminated one third of our people, the fact that the world was silent when Armenians were being killed was a sort of license to kill Jews. We know this and must not place political expediency above everything else.'

(Photolur photo: Metzger, right, leaving a message in the museum's guestbook.)