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Controversial Armenian rug will go on display

A lobbying campaign led in part by California lawmakers has borne fruit, with a White House agreement to allow display of the politically contentious artifact known as the Armenian Orphan Rug, though where has not yet been determined.

Lawmakers with large Armenian-American constituencies pressed administration officials to liberate the 89-year-old rug from storage. Their success marks the latest turn in the conflict over remembering an Armenian catastrophe.

“We’ve been in a constant course of discussion,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s been a long process.”

That’s because the rug surpasses mere decoration.

Measuring somewhat more than 11 feet by 18 feet, the rug contains more than 4 million hand-tied knots. Armenian girls in the Ghazir Orphanage of the Near East Relief Society, located in what is now Lebanon, took 10 months to complete it before it was presented in 1925 to President Calvin Coolidge.

The rug was meant to thank the United States for relief provided to victims of what President Barack Obama last week called the Meds Yeghern, which is Armenian for “great calamity.”

By some estimates, 1.5 million Armenians died at the end of the Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1923. Historians and governmental bodies have characterized the catastrophe as genocide, a term first recognized in international law in 1948 as referring to actions intended to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Diplomatically and militarily, the term is loaded.

Turkey, a key NATO ally, vigorously disputes the accuracy of the genocide term and pays lobbyists a lot of money to fight perennial congressional efforts to pass an Armenian genocide resolution. Pentagon and State Department officials likewise have raised concerns about antagonizing Turkey.

Last fall, the conflict seemed to stain the rug, after the Washington Post reported that the White House would not allow it to be displayed at the Smithsonian Castle for the launch of a 75-page book titled “President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug.” At the time, a White House spokeswoman said it would be “inappropriate” to bring out the rug for a private book event, but many saw other influences at work.

“I was concerned that the holdup was related to Turkish concerns,” Schiff said.

Like his White House predecessors, Obama has steered clear of the term “genocide” in the annual commemorative statements issued April 24. In light of all this history, Armenian-Americans consider the decision to display the rug, with its vivid associations, as progress.

“The display of this tangible expression of gratitude for America’s humanitarian intervention to save the survivors of the Armenian genocide is a positive development,” said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.

Working with allies like Schiff and Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., the organization helped rally more than 30 House of Representatives members to sign a letter urging the White House to display the rug. Schiff followed up with the White House congressional liaison, while the Armenian Assembly ramped up pressure by displaying a “sister rug” in Boston and Boca Raton, Fla.,

From Massachusetts, a state whose notable Armenian-American population includes Hagop Martin Deranian, the author of “President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug,” freshman Democratic Sen. Edward Markey weighed in as well.

On Wednesday, Markey declared in a statement that the rug’s display will “serve as reminder that we will never forget the Armenian Genocide and highlight the continued need to work towards its proper recognition.”

The rug has previously been displayed in the White House in 1984 and 1995. It could be shown as early as the fall, Schiff said. The precise Washington location remains uncertain, though both Schiff and Markey used nearly identical language in saying the location would be appropriate, sensitive and open to the public.