Sale of S.F. cross rattles deniers of Armenian genocide

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The campaign to convince San Francisco voters to give up a small chunk of parkland and save the Mount Davidson Cross will rev up within the next few weeks.

The effort will likely be the final chapter in a story that began seven years ago when nine San Franciscans of various faiths, including Rabbi Allen Bennett, sued the city for maintaining a 103-foot cross on public land.

On Monday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the sale of four-tenths of an acre of parkland below the cross to an Armenian-American group. The supervisors then placed the issue on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California bought the site at a public auction last month for $26,000. The council plans to preserve the 63-year-old cross as a landmark and adopt it as a memorial to the Armenian genocide.

"We are very excited," said Christine Tour-Sarkissian, an attorney representing the council, an umbrella group for 24 organizations. "We will start working diligently on the campaign. We will have to start soon…It's always unpredictable, but the Armenians are so enthusiastic about this project."

At the same time, an uglier side of the city showed itself. Supervisors said they'd received scores of faxes and e-mails asserting the Armenian genocide never took place.

Most of the denials have come from Turkish-Americans, Tour-Sarkissian said.

The slaughter of Armenians by Turks, which began in 1915, is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. Death-toll estimates range from 800,000 to more than 2 million, according to Compton's Living Encyclopedia. Despite outside documentation, Turkey has never admitted the event occurred.

"How would you feel if the Germans said the Holocaust never existed? It's painful," said Tour-Sarkissian, who estimated the Bay Area's Armenian-American population at 20,000 to 25,000.

Several supervisors condemned the e-mails and faxes. Such language, though constitutional, is inappropriate, Supervisor Michael Yaki said. The Armenian genocide "should never be debated in these chambers," he said.

The Board of Supervisors gave its go-ahead after the plaintiffs, the city and the new owner agreed to conditions that will lead to a formal settlement of the lawsuit.

"We're very happy we could reach a solution — but it took seven years to get here. It took us seven years because the city defended its ownership of the cross vehemently all the way to the Supreme Court," said Fred Blum, an American Jewish Congress attorney who helped represent the plaintiffs.

According to the compromise, the Armenian-Americans can use ground lighting every day for safety reasons but can illuminate the cross only two days each year. It cannot build any new religious structures.

The council also agreed to a consent decree, which will allow the plaintiffs to return to court if they believe the conditions are violated.

Though there's no final decision, Tour-Sarkissian said, the cross would likely be illuminated on Easter and the annual genocide memorial day, April 24.

Nighttime illumination of the cross was one of the issues that led to the lawsuit. "You could see it from 50 miles away," Blum said.

AJCongress won't oppose the ballot measure, Blum said. But he doesn't know yet whether the group will actively support it.

The plaintiffs objected to the cross' presence on city land, asserting it violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The city said it was a historic landmark.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the city's appeal of a 1996 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that declared the cross' presence on public land unconstitutional.

Not everyone is happy with the plaintiffs' decision to accept the sale.

Blum's side has received letters, including one from an atheist group, who say the plaintiffs should have forced the city to tear it down.

But Blum said the sale was the proper way to solve the controversy.

"We got what we wanted," he said.