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The Armenian Genocide at 104—Two Challenges and the Church

It is ingrained in our psyche. We talk and write about it constantly—sometimes at the expense of other aspects of our civilization. It is the first thing we declare when sharing our history with others, perhaps only superseded by our pride in being the first nation state to accept Christianity. It is both a unifier and an obsession. We take great joy in our survival and prosperity nearly four generations later, yet the dark cloud hovers over us like a wound that will not heal.
Until the 50th anniversary in 1965, the Genocide was an “internal” matter. We held communal worship services and commemorations. It was a time when the community was still led with our dear survivors. It was too painful to discuss in many cases, but they never forgot. It was a way of rebuilding our foundation. By 1965, a generational transition was taking place, and it became clear that it was time for the Armenian Genocide to become a public matter. The sons and daughters of the survivors led a “great reawakening.” One generation, removed from the raw emotion and personal experience of the calamity, was empowered to take a new, more aggressive approach. Spiritually, we continued to pray for their souls and for justice, but the battle for recognition, for dignity and redemption had begun.
Starting with Uruguay in 1965, a long list of nations, states, religious groups and regional governments were successfully lobbied by Armenians to accept and recognize the atrocities of the early twentieth century as genocide. Slowly, the movement grew internationally, wherever Armenians had been scattered, and evolved into a unified call for justice.
The Armenian Genocide was not simply the loss of life, of culture, of property and a homeland. It has deeply scarred the mentality of Armenians. A murdered nation without any sense of justice is left to recover without dignity, but also with anger, hatred and frustration. There are at least two prominent sources of these negative emotions.
The stories each families have of their horrific experiences lead us to wonder who they were, what could have been and why. It is particularly difficult for each succeeding generation as they are further removed from the “homeland” and their history. This source is very personal as it concerns our families, the victims and their fate. Stories of death and survival are a common denominator.
The other source is usually connected to the term “justice” itself. A major crime was committed, and the criminal has not been held accountable. Incredible progress has been made on both fronts, but much remains. How do we channel our emotions in a productive manner consistent with our Christian faith? The answer is this: Hatred has no place in our faith, nor does it achieve much in the way of securing justice. It’s just wasted calories.
In my view, the battle for recognition has already been won. Does work remain? Yes. Must we continue? Yes, but a remarkable change has occurred in the last 30 plus years. There was a time when countries and many politicians would openly question the veracity of the Genocide. They openly challenged the facts and questioned whether the Turks had criminal intent. “Scholars” would publish anti-Armenian books. Currently, those works are largely discredited as agenda-driven. Today, the “opposition” (non-Turkish) is essentially linked to geo-political convenience. This is a hard-earned victory. It has done much to redeem a sense of dignity. It has correctly positioned the Armenian Genocide and allowed us to begin to move into the domain of legal arguments and reparations. What was intended to be forgotten after one generation is now stronger and gaining momentum.
The church has a role to play in both the personal and national aspects of the genocide. In our pain for our beloved ancestors, the church has offered a path for peace and tranquility. In 2015, the victims of the Armenians Genocide were canonized, or sainted. Today, the remembrance of the Genocide is a feast day in our church (Feast of the Holy Martyrs). With faith, this should free us from the pain of their loss. As saints, we pray to them to intercede for us to God. We no longer have requiem (hokehankist) prayers for the martyrs, as their souls as saints are with the Lord. The church officially announced that they died for their “faith and homeland.”
What is the significance of this? It may take years for us to internalize the impact, but the church has made a contribution to free us of our earthly emotions. We should no longer mourn their loss but celebrate their eternal relationship with God, freeing us of our feelings of anger and hatred, for these emotions do nothing for our people and distract us from our journeys. It will take time and prayer, but the opportunity is there. I recommend all to read a pamphlet/book written a few years ago by now Primate Fr. Daniel Findikyan entitled “From Victims to Victors.” It is a concise and clear explanation of this significant event and how it can impact our faith and view of genocide. It is available at parishes and the Diocese. A truly wonderful read.
Let’s examine briefly what the church can do in the “justice” domain. The church is the most central institution in the Armenian nation. It is our spiritual home and the glue that bonds our diversity into a “community.” It has been active from a commemorative and recognition perspective locally, regionally and internationally.
As our people move beyond recognition and fully embrace the challenge of reparations, most of the attention is on two elements of restitution: the land of Western Armenia and the financial compensation for communal and personal property stolen. These are complex issues and will become the centerpiece of our dialogue in the next 25 years. There is however another area that desperately needs leadership that the church could provide.
In Western Armenia, hundreds of churches, monasteries and schools were confiscated, destroyed or left to abuse. Most of these have been documented by photojournalists, engineers, artists and architects. Their very survival is subject to the whims of the Turkish government. The long-term goal should be the return of these properties to their rightful owners: the Armenian church. A short term collaborative effort to stabilize and restore these jewels should be mounted with international support. Ask yourself this question: what is the value of international nations recognizing the Genocide, if not to pressure Turkey into action? With this in mind, while very few nations today would be willing to take on land and financial reparations, they may take on the cultural and historical implications of this initiative. That is, if a credible Armenian institution takes the lead.
Many of you may recall the lawsuit filed by the Great House of Cilicia insisting on the return of the properties of the former seat of Holy See in Sis, Cilicia, which was destroyed by the Turks during the Genocide. The Holy See of Etchmiadzin, Antelias and the Patriarchate of Istanbul should be collaborating and devising short and long-term strategies to save our properties. If we don’t, then they will continue to be desecrated both by weather and by hooligans, or they will become subject to secular tourist manipulation of Turkish government. This is reparation. This is justice. And it is also work that can uniquely be performed by the church.
It starts with publicly addressing the issues—not just from a historical perspective, but from the current crisis of cultural deprivation. This can be both a unifying and significant leadership opportunity for the church. The world has changed in 104 years and so has the Armenian nation. Some of the change we embrace, but much remains an opportunity. With the independence of Armenia, the onset of technology, and a new generation that enjoys a more integrated view of the world, our church must step out of its traditional role. In Western Armenia, we had property and people. Today, in a much different state, we still have both.
The churches of Western Armenia have waited over 100 years for their rescue. On this week of remembrance and hope, I thank the church for its shepherding of our people to this point and pray that it embraces this opportunity before us without fear and reluctance, but instead, love and action.
Stepan PiligianColumnist


Armenian Weekly

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