Armenian Genocide Fosters 'Seal of Unshakeable Faith'

NEWS ANALYSIS: The shared experience of cultural devastation is a fierce source of Armenian identity.

Clergy of Armenian Apostolic Church participate in a canonization ceremony for victims of the Armenian genocide at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, a complex that serves as the administrative headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, on April 23 in Vagharshapat, Armenia.
Clergy of Armenian Apostolic Church participate in a canonization ceremony for victims of the Armenian genocide at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, a complex that serves as the administrative headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, on April 23 in Vagharshapat, Armenia. (photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Christian history has never witnessed as many martyrs celebrated together as it did yesterday, when the Armenian Apostolic Church canonized 1.5 million souls massacred during the Armenian genocide, launched by the Ottoman Turks 100 years ago today.

The ceremony was held outside of the world’s oldest cathedral, Holy Etchmiadzin, within sight of Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark is believed to have come to rest.

Within sight does not mean within easy reach, though: Mount Ararat is located in Turkey, and the Armenian-Turkish border is closed. The two countries have no diplomatic relationship.

Unfortunately, as a result of centenary events around the world marking the “Great Crime” (as Armenians call it), tensions with Turkey are at an all-time high. 

Despite having little in common with the late Ottoman regime, contemporary Turkish governments have adamantly resisted the historical consensus that genocide was committed on its territory.

On the other side, the shared experience of cultural devastation is a fierce source of Armenian identity.

“The blood of the Armenian martyred for Christ has placed the seal of unshakeable faith and patriotism on the sands of the desert,” declared Catholicos (universal leader) Karekin II, supreme patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The religious leader hardly concealed his frustration with the Turkish government, observing, “The history of martyrdom is not merely a litany of facts or events; rather, it is the truth of faith that appears before us, against which tortures and crimes, as well as political deceits and machinations, are powerless.”



The canonization was the first time in 400 years that the Armenian Church — an Orthodox faith representing more than 90% of the nation’s population — inducted new saints. Representatives of the Armenian Catholic Church participated, too.

True to its historical Church roots, the canonization was a feast of color, sound and saintly references: Fourteen holy relics were incorporated into the ceremony, including relics of the True Cross, the Holy Lance and the right hand of St. Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia’s patron saint.  

The Catholicos reflected on how shared faith helped the far-flung Armenian diaspora maintain strong Christian, national identity.

It is through “devotion to Christ and love of patrimony that our people have re-created their spiritual and national life in all corners of the world, found rebirth in Eastern Armenia, under the canopy of their state, which has risen from the ashes,” he said.

Some 3 million people live in Armenia, while about 10 million Armenians live around the world, largely as a result of genocide-provoked displacement. Approximately 70,000 Armenians still live in Turkey.

Following the ceremony, church bells tolled across the country — as well as in Berlin, Madrid, New York, Moscow, Paris and Venice.

Today, the Eiffel Tower will remain dark to mark the Armenian Genocide, a term France endorsed in 2011, as does Canada, Italy, Russia, Germany, Austria, France and the Vatican.

Many other countries — including the United States, England and Israel as well as the United Nations — avoid the “G word,” in order to avoid angering Turkey.

When Pope Francis referred to “the 20th century’s first genocide,” at an April 12 Mass for the Armenian faithful, he set off a discussion that continues to reverberate worldwide.


A Bleeding Wound

The Holy Father explained the problem of failing to confront the past with an evocative image.

He said, “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.” This eloquent yet simple image carries with it a moral directive: It compels sympathy (an injury still bleeding) and action (bandage it).

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, a leader of the Armenian Church of America who participated in the canonization, as well as the April 12 Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, told the Register by email, “The impact of Pope Francis’ remarks has been profound, with powerful repercussions.”

“His recognition of the Armenian genocide was a deeply moral act on its own, but it seemed to inspire similar acts of moral courage across the world, opening the door to nations and individuals to speak out in recognition of the genocide,” the archbishop continued.

“It’s as if these others were waiting to break their silence, and the Pope’s forthright declaration gave them permission or inspiration to do so,” wrote Archbishop Barsamian.


Facing Truth

On April 15, the European Parliament called on Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide, open its border with Armenia and renew bilateral diplomatic relations.

Earlier this week, the Austrian Parliament described the Armenian persecution as genocide in a statement signed by the country’s six parliamentary parties and called on Turkey to similarly acknowledge the fact.

Austria’s action is significant because the Austro-Hungarian Empire was allied with the Ottoman Empire in 1915, when the killing began.

German President Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor, spoke yesterday at a Berlin interfaith service describing the Armenian experience as “exemplary in the history of mass exterminations, ethnic cleansing, deportations and, yes, genocide, which marked the 20th century in such a terrible way.”  

Interestingly, Gauck also acknowledged a direct role played by Germans soldiers who “were also involved in the planning and, partly, in the execution of the deportations.”

In one particularly encouraging development, an Istanbul youth branch of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party organized a street demonstration last night to commemorate the start of the mass killings in 1915.

Demonstrators carried placards reading, “Confront the Genocide.”

They also visited the addresses of Armenian elite who were rounded up on April 24, 1915, and killed. Participants left red carnations on the victims’ doors as well as enlarged images of their faces.

A coalition of 20 Assyrian non-governmental organizations active in Turkey also called for Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide as well as the mass killing of some 500,000 Assyrians.


U.S. Position

Most anticipated has been whether President Barack Obama would recognize the Armenian genocide today. Armenian-Americans have expected this affirmation ever since the president endorsed genocide recognition while campaigning.

To date, President Ronald Reagan was the only president to refer to the Armenian experience as a genocide in public statements.

But the White House made clear earlier this week that Obama will not change the status quo — deferring to Turkish sensitivities, which has reportedly greatly upset Armenian-Americans, who are described as having their “hopes crushed.”  

Van Krikorian, co-chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, explained at a congressional hearing yesterday that he thinks the president “has been misled by false promises. Worst of all, it puts more lives at risk, as history does repeat itself.”

Krikorian continued, “The record [regarding the genocide] has never been in doubt. To say that people are shocked is an overstatement. The news that the Turkish foreign minister met with Secretary [John] Kerry and National Security adviser [Susan] Rice, with ISIL on the table, made everything clear. However, to say that we are deeply disappointed is an understatement.”

“The truth is: We feel pain and sorrow. … We feel pain for the innocent people and civilization that was destroyed. We feel sorrow in the knowledge that it will continue unless change comes,” said the Armenian activist.

The official U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew, traveling to Armenian for today’s genocide commemoration includes Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., whose mother was Armenian.

Speier posted on her Facebook page, “We should be unequivocal about recognizing the ‪#‎genocide, and I am making every effort to speak out about it at every stage of this trip.”

She also reported, “There’s a sense of euphoria here. Members of the ‪#‎Armenian diaspora from around the world have come home to remember the genocide. … There’s a sense of pride to be here. As painful as this remembrance is, there’s a sense of community that’s very palpable.”

The most prominent heads of state attending today’s events are President Vladimir Putin from Russia and President Francois Hollande of France.


Helsinki Commission

One U.S. government entity with no doubt the Armenian people experienced a genocide in the early 20th century is the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission, chaired by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.

The commission held a hearing yesterday entitled “A Century of Denial: The Armenian Genocide and the Ongoing Quest for Justice.”

Smith explained the background for the event’s subject: “The Armenian genocide is the only one of the genocides of the 20th century in which the nation that was decimated … has been subject to the ongoing outrage of a massive campaign of genocide denial, openly sustained by state authority.”

The congressman outlined the dimensions of what he called “one of the most terrible crimes of the 20th century.”

He said, “In 1915, there were about 2 million Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire. They were living in a region they inhabited for 2,500 years. By 1923, well over 90% of these Armenians had disappeared.”

“Most of them, as many as 1.5 million, were dead — most of them death-marched into the desert or were shot and subject in some cases to rape or other unbelievable cruelties. The remainder had been forced into exile,” he said.

One committee witness, professor Elizabeth Prodromou, who is currently teaching at Tufts University, described genocide denial as “the final stage of genocide” and suggested that, by denying the crime, the Turkish government helps perpetuate it.

A U.S. diplomat who served in Turkey told the Register, “Turkish identity is fragile and constructed from disparate elements. [President Recep] Erdoğan wants Turkey’s Ottoman legacy resurrected, but he can’t abide any smirches on Ottoman or Turkish character.”

“Ironically, he has been improving the situation for religious minorities, in most cases, over the poisonous xenophobia of the secular nationalist he supplanted” when Erdoğan came to power in 2002.


Moral Dimension

Kenneth Hachikian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America, said there are many costs associated with genocide denial, but “first and foremost, the moral cost.”

“No one has spoken more powerfully to this aspect than Pope Francis. The pontiff, consistent with the Vatican’s long-standing principled tradition of Armenian genocide recognition, spoke honestly about this atrocity, telling the world that ‘concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.’”

He continued, “These powerful words by Pope Francis reflect the values of every faith’s tradition, every nation’s code of morality, every civilized culture’s concept of justice.”

Said Hachikian, “The cause of genocide prevention, a core moral imperative of our age, requires, as the Pope so powerfully stated, that we not engage in ‘concealing or denying evil.’”

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.