YEREVAN, Armenia – Hundreds of thousands of Armenians laid flowers Sunday at a monument to the victims of mass killings by Ottoman Turks, creating mounds of blossoms that rose higher throughout the day.
This year's 96th anniversary of the start of the slaughter has added poignancy because it coincides with Easter and the Christian celebration of rebirth.
Armenians say that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, which Armenians and several nations around the world recognize as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Turkey denies that the massacres were genocide, saying the death toll is inflated and Armenians were killed in civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
President Serge Sarkisian said in a national address that Armenia now strives for peace with Turkey. But while praising Turkish intellectuals and others who have spoken out for reconciliation, he had stern words for the Turkish government.
"Today in Turkey, more than ever, reasonable voices are being heard," Sarkisian said. "Nevertheless, the official policy of Turkey carries on with the course of denial. ... For us one thing is incontestable: The policy of denial is a direct continuation of the Armenian genocide."
Several thousand young Armenians burned a Turkish flag before marching to the monument on the eve of the anniversary.
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Armenians from across the country, joined by members of the extensive Armenian diaspora, marched to the monument on a hill overlooking Yerevan, the capital. Some carried banners reading: "Genocide never gets old" and "Nobody and nothing will be forgotten."
Simon Avakian came with his children from the U.S. state of Massachusetts. "Living in America they must not forget about this and must do everything for international recognition of genocide," he said.
Among those laying flowers at the monument was U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who said that Americans and their government stood with Armenians across the world on this day.
By late afternoon, flowers around the memorial's eternal flame were piled seven feet (two meters) high.
On Saturday, President Barack Obama described the killings as "one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century," but once again stopped short of branding them genocide.
As a candidate for president, Obama vowed to recognize the genocide once in office, but since 2009 he has declined to use the word in the face of furious resistance from Turkey, a key NATO ally.
The slayings began with the rounding up of about 800 Armenian intellectuals on April 24, 1915. The Ottoman authorities then evicted Armenians from their homes in actions that spiraled into the mass slayings of the Armenian population.