Mehmet Oz faces backlash from Pennsylvania’s Armenian community over Turkish ties

Would-be Republican senator's refusal to recognise genocide has made him persona non grata for many Armenian voters

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For many of the roughly 40,000 Armenian Americans living in Pennsylvania, the Senate race between Democratic candidate John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz is personal and has become focused on a genocide that occurred during the First World War.

Oz, a retired heart surgeon and popular TV personality, is hoping to become the first Muslim senator in US history and keep a critical Senate seat under Republican control in the November 8 midterms.

But it is his ties to Turkey and his refusal to label the systematic killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide that have infuriated many living in the Keystone State.

In Huntingdon Valley, a suburb to the north-west of Philadelphia, Armenian community members and allies gathered outside the registered headquarters of the Oz campaign to protest against his silence on the issue.

The crowd of young and old, Democrats and Republicans are campaigning for Oz's defeat on November 8 — even as he has surged from being 10 points to only two points behind his opponent.

Lorig Baronian, a descendant of genocide survivors, saw Oz’s Senate bid as an affront to her community.

“We refuse to allow a candidate to drag the US Senate back into the days of denial … [back to] the sad era before the US Senate voted 100 to zero to recognise this crime and reject its denial,” Ms Baronian told the crowd.

Armenian Americans protest against US Senate candidate in Pennsylvania

Armenian Americans protest against US Senate candidate in Pennsylvania

In 2019, the Senate voted unanimously to recognise the atrocities that killed about 1.5 million Armenians as genocide. And two years later, Joe Biden became the first sitting US president to describe the atrocities as genocide.

Mr Biden's declaration angered Turkey, whose foreign minister called it “the greatest betrayal to peace and justice”.

As many as 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have been killed from 1915 to 1917 in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which suspected the Christian minority of conspiring with Russia during Oz, 62, is a former cardiothoracic surgeon but since retiring has courted controversy by promoting non-proven remedies.

He is a dual US and Turkish citizen who served in the Turkish military, and his campaign has referred to the events of 1915 as the “evils of World War One [that] should be commemorated”.

But neither the campaign nor the candidate has used the word genocide, something that Ms Baronian finds identical with the Turkish playbook.

“Oz's refusal to recognise this known case of genocide mirrors to the hateful campaign — led by Ankara — to cover up this crime, abandon its victims, and consolidate its fruits,” she said.

The Oz campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

More than 30 countries have recognised the atrocities as genocide, including France, Germany, Argentina and Canada.

Turkey has long rejected the designation and has accused the Armenian community of “infusing history with myth”.

Karine Shamlian, a Pennsylvania voter and a volunteer with the Armenian National Committee of America (Anca), told The National that her objection to Oz’s candidacy has nothing to do with his Turkish roots.

“There are many Turkish people who recognise the Armenian genocide … So it has nothing to do with him being Turkish,” said Ms Shamlian, whose grandparents were genocide survivors that moved to the US. “It is about standing up for justice and truth in history.

“As a public servant that would be representing Pennsylvania, we want to make sure that our voices and our concerns are represented fairly in the United States Senate.”

Ms Shamlian said members of the community and Anca had tried to reach out to the Oz campaign but their messages went unanswered.

On the campaign trail, Oz has mostly avoided discussing his Turkish heritage but has said that he would renounce his Turkish citizenship if he wins the race.

But Joseph Frounjian, an Armenian-American resident of Pennsylvania who normally votes Republican, said Oz renouncing his citizenship is not enough.

“He voted in the Turkish elections [in 2018]. He participated in the Turkish military. So for me, it's a question of where does his allegiance lie? Is it with the United States? Or is it with Turkey?,” Mr Frounjian told The National.

An advertisement by Anca and the Hellenic American Leadership Council took aim at those ties, accusing the candidate of receiving millions of dollars from Turkish businesses and cosying up to the country’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Oz, who was born in Ohio to Turkish parents, called the attacks “bigoted” and likened them to “slurs made in the past about Catholics and Jews”.

His rival, Mr Fetterman, has not made Oz's Turkish links a part of his attack line but has come out strongly in recognising the Armenian genocide.

“As a Pennsylvanian, I welcomed the long overdue US government recognition of the Armenian genocide — by the US House and Senate in 2019 and by President Biden in 2021 — and will, as a US senator, support promoting public education about this atrocity,” Mr Fetterman said in a statement.

With polls narrowing in the race, it is the suburbs of Pennsylvania, such as Huntingdon Valley, that could decide the outcome and possibly the control of the Senate.

Some members of the community have reservations about Mr Fetterman's economic and social policies, but for them, the race has been solely defined by keeping Oz away from Washington.

Updated: October 19, 2022, 3:34 AM