updated 12/15/2008 5:01:15 PM ET 2008-12-15T22:01:15

A group of about 200 Turkish intellectuals on Monday issued an apology on the Internet for the World War I-era massacres of Armenians in Turkey.

The group of prominent academics, journalists, writers and artists avoided using the contentious term "genocide" in the apology, using the less explosive "Great Catastrophe" instead.

"My conscience does not accept that (we) remain insensitive toward and deny the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected in 1915," read the apology. "I reject this injustice, share in the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers, and apologize to them."

The apology is a sign that many in Turkey are ready to break a long-held taboo against acknowledging Turkish culpability for the deaths.

Historians estimate that, in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in what is widely regarded as the first genocide of the 20th century. Armenians have long pushed for the deaths to be recognized as genocide.

While Turkey does not deny that many died in that era, the country has rejected the term genocide, saying the death toll is inflated and the deaths resulted from civil unrest during the Ottoman Empire's collapse.

Online apology
Nearly 2,500 members of the public also signed the online apology, giving their support to the intellectuals.

Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk was prosecuted after he commented on the mass killings in 2005. Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian journalist was shot outside his Istanbul office in 2007, following his prosecution for comments he made about the killings of Armenians.

Turkish nationalists have criticized the online apology and on Monday a group of some 60 retired Turkish diplomats described the move "as unfair, wrong and unfavorable to national interests."

"Such an incorrect and one-sided attempt would mean disrespecting our history," the diplomats said.

Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party said: "No one has the right to insult our ancestors, to present them as criminals and to ask for an apology."

By late Monday, there were no public threats of legal action over the petition.

"Many in Turkey today, in good faith, believe that nothing happened to the Armenians. For many years, the official line has been that this was a secondary event that occurred in the conditions of World War I. But the truth is not so," Cengiz Aktar, a professor at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University and one of the petition's organizers told Vatan newspaper in an interview.

'Voice from the conscience'
"It is a voice from the conscience. Those who want to apologize can, those who don't want to don't have to," he said.

Gila Benmayor, a journalist and columnist for Turkey's mass-circulation Hurriyet newspaper said she signed the petition because she believes "the time has come for change."

"Some things need to spoken, need to be discussed and expressed in an open way," she told The Associated Press.

She said she did not hesitate to sign the petition because the wording was not controversial.

"The words were carefully chosen so as not to upset any side," she said. "We are not betraying anyone. We are merely telling the Armenians that we share their grief."

The apology comes at a time when Turkey and Armenia have taken steps toward repairing ties. The two neighbors have no diplomatic relations and their shared border has been closed since 1993, when Turkey protested Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey backs Azerbaijan's claims to the disputed region, which has a high number of ethnic Armenian residents but is located within Azerbaijan's borders.

In September, however, President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia, where he and Armenian President Serge Sarkisian watched their countries' football teams play a World Cup qualifying match.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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