WATERTOWN -- As the nearly century-old debate rages half a world away about whether Turks committed genocide against Armenians, members of both cultures came together yesterday to commemorate what some see as the latest casualty of the conflict.
Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish editor, was slain in Istanbul in January. His newspaper columns had long demanded respect and improved conditions for Armenians and recognition of the deep and tortured history of Armenians in Turkey. Dink was gunned down in broad daylight Jan. 19 on a sidewalk outside his office -- allegedly by a teenage boy.
Hundreds of Armenian-Americans -- and some Turkish-Americans -- gathered yesterday for a commemoration known as a Karsunk, the traditional end of the mourning period of a person's death and an opportunity to reflect on a person's legacy.
Many expressed optimism that Dink's death will enable Armenians to gain worldwide recognition of a genocide they say Turks began against their people in 1915 , resulting in the deaths of an estimated 1.3 million Armenians.
"His legacy is for Armenians to live side by side with Turks without retribution," said Tamar Barkhordarian, a nurse from Watertown. "He risked his life for freedom of speech."
His death prompted tens of thousands people, including empathetic Turks, to walk in silence through the streets of Istanbul on the day of his funeral.
"He had the guts and courage to speak about human rights and to speak about the injustice that has been done to the Armenian ancestry of Turkey," said Apo Torosyan, an artist from Peabody. "He knew his life was in danger by speaking out."
Some Armenian-Americans declined to be interviewed for this story in fear that Turkish government officials would punish relatives who live in the country.
But in a show of support, some Turkish-Americans and Turks turned out for the commemoration.
"Everybody was horrified by his murder," said Gunduz Vassaf, a former psychology professor who was born in Boston, and later added, "It's a conscience of a nation bleeding, and it led to this outpouring."
During a service yesterday at the orthodox St. James Armenian Apostolic Church, mourners compared Dink to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and said a prayer in Dink's honor. Then, well-wishers attended a luncheon in a gymnasium next door, nibbling on sandwiches and some Armenian dishes, such as grape leaves stuffed with rice and onions.
A few Armenian-Americans circulated a flier asking people to call members of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and urge them to pass legislation condemning Dink's murder as well as pushing for the Turkish government to repeal a law that hinders free speech, especially in talking about the Armenian genocide.
The gymnasium was adorned with pictures of Dink, candlelight vigils in his honor, and even of his body covered with a white sheet on a sidewalk after he was killed.
After the luncheon, state Representative Rachel Kaprielian said in an interview that Dink was a person who comes around "once in a blue moon."
"He was a person whose values were more important than his own life," she said. "He knew for many years his life was in danger for saying what he knew was the truth."