When a video surfaced in March of Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan joking and laughing during a meeting in 2020 with representatives of local Turkish groups, it sparked a furor among some community members who noted among the party a man who has been outspoken in denying the Armenian Genocide.

Residents penned letters and turned up at City Council meetings to voice their outrage. An Armenian group denounced the county Democratic Party for its early endorsement in Khan’s 2022 mayoral race.

In demand letters penned to the public and Khan, an immediate apology from the mayor was requested, along with a pledge to distance herself from anyone who has denied the genocide and for her support for teaching public school students about the history of the carnage.

Khan and Armenian community members have since met and it could mean an Armenian Genocide memorial is constructed in Irvine – Khan said she will support finding a place in the city. She’s also agreed to approach the Irvine Unified school board about coordinating training for educators on teaching about the genocide. And, at an April City Council meeting, she said she donated $1,500 to the Genocide Education Project.

Khan was quick to post recorded statements to social media apologizing, but has also said the video wasn’t an accurate representation of what was discussed during that meeting – she’s having a company look into its editing.

The video’s captions had an “incorrect translation” of the conversation between her and Turkish community members, she said, suspecting its out-of-context release now was “politically intended,” timed for two weeks before the Democratic Party of Orange County planned to announced its early endorsements.

The mayor remains steadfast that discussions at the meeting, which she said was one of many held with community members after her 2020 mayoral win, did not touch on the Armenian Genocide, as some have said.

She promised to cut ties with anyone critical that the genocide occurred.

“I think it’s a little disheartening,” Khan said of the response to the video. “I think I’ve been in the middle of conflicts before – from India and Pakistan, from Palestine and Israel – and I’ve never had the community react this way to me. I have never had this type of experience. It’s always been like, ‘We’re upset, let’s have a meeting. Let’s talk. Let’s have an understanding.’”

‘Outraged is an understatement’

In the released video, Khan is accepting congratulations for her mayoral win, she said. When she is presented a box of Turkish Delights, captions appear depicting the conversation between Khan and a community member identified later as Ergun Kirlikovali. They read that he says on “Armenians’ occasions,” Khan could eat the candies and they would “disappear.”  Khan responds, “I’ll make sure I eat it in front of them.”

Some said they believe Khan and Kirlikovali were referring to Armenians disappearing. But the mayor said there was “no mention of Armenian Genocide.”

“As a person of faith, as a person who has worked in interfaith for so many years, has 17 years of community building behind me, I would never make fun of anybody,” Khan said in an interview. “That’s not who I am. That’s not what I would do.”

She said she has a company looking into the authenticity of the video with captions, and “preliminary findings from them is that this is a chopped up, kind-of sliced up video. It’s not what I said. It’s not what I was discussing at the time.”

Khan said the company, which she declined to name or provide further details on, is preparing a final report on its review, which she will present publicly when it’s completed.

“I’m really hoping for that professional report to come out to kind of put to rest the idea that people are calling me a racist and that I’m denying the genocide or saying that Armenians should disappear,” Khan said.

Violet Bulujian, chair of the Orange County chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America, said seeing the video was a gut-punch.

“To say that we were outraged is an understatement,” said Bulujian, who added that she represents the area’s Armenian community.

“If you imagine the Democratic mayor attending a meeting that was hosted by Holocaust deniers, and that mayor says, ‘I pledged to stand with you no matter what,’ and then laughs along with them, that would not be tolerated, under no circumstances,” Bulujian said.

As many as 1.2 million Armenians died during the genocide that began in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. While most historians agree the deaths and massacres that occurred constitute genocide, the Turkish government has resisted calling it such, saying that while tragedies took place during World War I, no coordinated genocide happened.

Political rift

Khan ultimately was given the Democratic Party of Orange County’s early endorsement at a meeting in March.

In response to a request for a recording of discussions during that meeting, Executive Director Ajay Mohan provided an emailed statement from Party Chair Ada Briceño, who said the group’s “Central Committee voted overwhelmingly, by a vote of more than 2/3, to endorse Mayor Farrah Khan for re-election. We look forward to supporting Mayor Khan in 2022.”

A couple weeks later, members of the Southern California Armenian Democrats began circulating a petition calling on the party to rescind the endorsement.

Led by UCI professor of Physics and Astronomy Kev Abazajian, the group wrote that Khan’s response to the community “has been as reprehensible as the original hate speech,” and the endorsement should be taken back “until which point she properly acknowledges the extent of the harm of her actions and takes concrete steps to reconcile with the Armenian community.”

The Democrats of Greater Irvine, a group also chaired by Abazajian, a 2018 City Council contender who lost out to Khan and Councilman Anthony Kuo, voted to censure the mayor at a meeting in April for “her participation in hate speech, supporting and promoting Armenian Genocide denialists and continued denial of the years-long relationship with Armenian Genocide denialists.”

There is an existing rift among Democrats in Irvine, Khan said, between those who support her and those who side with Councilman Larry Agran. A longtime figure in Irvine politics, Agran has held a seat on the City Council for the better part of three decades. He was first elected in 1978 and has served off and on, including times as mayor, to today.

The Democrats of Greater Irvine on March 20 – prior to the video surfacing – had already voted 37-11 to oppose giving Khan their early endorsement for mayor. In their letter to the Central Committee, the Democrats of Greater Irvine listed a number of reasons for opposing Khan, including her resistance to moving to district-based elections, her failure to second more than a dozen agenda items proposed by Agran and her promotion of Republicans in Irvine, among other issues.

The group urged the Central Committee to “support our local Democratic club members’ positions as they are the ones who will be organizing and volunteering, on the ground, when it comes election time.”

Khan contends that group isn’t representative of the broader base of Democratic voters in the city. She also said she “wouldn’t be surprised” if Abazajian was behind the public release of the video to disparage her politically leading up to the endorsement vote.

“I don’t know what the truth is behind it, but I can only assume that it is to help Larry Agran,” Khan said.

Abazajian balked at the notion that he had anything to do with the video or that the outrage over its release was about political infighting, saying the response from the community had “nothing to do with other members of the council.”

“This has to do with her supporting genocidal regimes for years. And associating with genocide deniers for years,” he said.

Abazajian said the issue is “way bigger than Irvine,” recalling that he and others were outraged in 2021 when Khan lauded the country of Azerbaijan as a “secular democracy” during an Azerbaijani Consulate event celebrating its Republic Day. The ANCA Western Region, which represents all of California, in a letter to the Central Committee asking the group not to award Khan its annual “Truth Award,” calling Azerbaijan “one of the most authoritarian regimes on earth, ranking amongst the worst offenders when it comes to democratic rights, press freedom and fundamental human rights.”

Khan said at the time she “did not realize there is a conflict going on,” between Azerbaijan and Armenia and she later sat down with the ANCA group to apologize, but she felt singled out because the criticism came as she was being considered for the Central Committee award. Other elected officials who were part of that Azerbaijani event didn’t receive the same pushback, she said.

Bulujian’s organization, the ANCA, has also noted that Kirlikovali was among a group that Khan announced in 2021 as her mayoral advisory committee. Khan said the residents weren’t appointed as part of an official committee, instead the group was formed out of an “open call to community members that I should be interacting with, to come on and share with me what they’d like to see more of in the city,” she said.

Agran called it “just ludicrous” to imply that he or his supporters were involved in this controversy, saying that Khan shouldn’t be focused on a resident or local politics. “Her problem is with the Armenian community, and as I understand it throughout Southern California and maybe even nationally,” Agran said.

Kirlikovali also said the conversation during the meeting with Khan in 2020 was about Turkish desserts and not about Armenians disappearing.

After sitting down with Bulujian and other community members in May, Khan said she hoped for an opportunity to move forward and “build a relationship with the community, especially here in Irvine, and go forward from there.”

Bulujian isn’t quite ready to call it a relationship mended. She said Khan agreed to what community members are asking of her, including the memorial and initiating training of district teachers on the Genocide Education Project.

“I don’t know about saying reconciliation. I wouldn’t call it that,” Bulujian said. But her hope as a result of the community’s response is for the mayor “to be more aware of who her constituents are and who she’s representing.”

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