Armenia: from victims to victors?

By Harry Hagopian
April 28, 2011

On 24 April 2011, Armenians the world over celebrated Holy Easter - the Feast of the Resurrection when believers in the immanent reality of our Christ-centred faith will contemplate life over death, love over hatred and good over evil. It is the day when Armenians also recall the unfailing words of Revelation 21.4 that “[God] will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain. The world of the past has gone” (New Jerusalem Bible).

But this Light of the Resurrection also coincides for the first time ever in our church calendar with the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide - the 96th anniversary this year - that is always commemorated on 24 April. Our memories are traumatised by the martyrdom of our forbears who suffered persecution, torture, deportation and death.

So are we Armenians facing a quandary today? As an Armenian Orthodox priest from the USA put it clearly in his latest pod-cast, should we church-goers pray Govya Yerousaghem that speaks of victory or of Ee Verin Yerousaghem that mourns the dead? Or should we simply sing both as an adequate compromise that frees us from making a choice? Otherwise put, do we take up Christ’s Cross on this 24 April or do we take Christ up to the Cross?

For any race that has suffered such evil, abandonment and despair as genocide, this is not an easy question. After all, most Armenians are prepped - almost genetically - to compare this date with the crucifixion of Jesus when he turned to the Father and asked, Eloi ,Eloi, lama sabachthani - My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15:34).

Yet, there is a more important truth for me here: it is a belief that the cross yielded to the Resurrection, God’s gift of life which defeated death, just as we Armenians also survived the genocide and defied death. Maybe the lesson is that we should learn to opt for love as our weapon of choice in order to liberate ourselves from the darkness of death and come into the light of life.

While the murder of well over one million hapless Armenian men, women and children is plainly too horrible to be forgotten, and in fact should not and cannot be forgotten, it nonetheless needs to be turned into a power celebrating life rather than merely recalling death. As victors who triumphed against the odds, do we not also have an equal duty to go beyond our own sorrow and stand in solidarity with the victims of all other genocides worldwide?

It is not easy, is it? Not at all, but then who claimed that it will be easy in the first place?

Just like all those who passionately recall the crucifixion but cannot take it to the joy of the Resurrection, I believe that many of us Armenians have also become so taken up by the self-constraining concept of the recognition of this abhorrent crime that we have not thought out carefully as to what comes later. Much as recognition could be viewed as a goalpost, and much as it remains an initial step toward justice that would help close this open sore in Armenian and Turkish psyches through reconciliation and eventual forgiveness, it is equally necessary to have a vision that transcends it.

In 2005, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches stated that, “from the Christian perspective, the path towards justice and reconciliation requires the recognition of the crime committed as a sine qua non condition for the healing of memories and the possibility of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting but to look back with the intention to restore justice, the respect for human rights and relationships between perpetrators and victims.”

On Easter Sunday, 96 years later, I firmly believe that one principal challenge for the future should be the empowerment of healthy and robust Armenian younger generations to take their place in society, make their mistakes and then leave their marks. A truly prophetic challenge would be for us all to explore ways in which we could overcome the trauma of the Armenian Genocide as the sole gateway to our identity and the locus of our ethos. This would help make us whole again by contributing toward healing our psychological, moral and political bruises let alone tending to our broken memories.

But can we pull it off? Besides, why should we let Turkey off the hook anyway? This is where I believe that the power of healing becomes critical in our lives and goes well beyond political sophistry and even religious orthodoxy. It is admittedly a painful step for many of us to take lightly, one that is also much more Sisyphean than pursuing a retributive course of action that could perhaps temporarily channel our angst and in the process also vindicate our forebears who lost their lives during the massacres of 1894-96 and the genocide-driven years from 1915 till 1923.

However, I would suggest that healing represents an ultimate way forward when confronting the sordid evils of genocide, whereby we refresh ourselves with a sense of renewal and a preponderance of life that refuses to be defeated by both the deadly and deadening weight of genocide. In this way, we will not only cherish the memory of those countless victims of genocide but we will have also thwarted Ottoman Turkish past designs to eliminate us as a race or present-day Turkish endeavours to deny our painful sacrifices. Equally importantly, it will put us back on the road toward recovery from a trauma that can only smear our lives and those of our families or friends.
But even this step is no longer enough in my opinion, and we have to be bolder by going forward further!

As some Armenians already do, whether outwardly or simply in their inner hearts, we should learn to grieve not only for our own fallen martyrs, because they are indeed martyrs, but also stand in solidarity with all victims of genocide world-wide. Whilst recognising that we have been victims of a dreadful experience that tarnished a whole page of history, we should rejoice that we are also victors who have vanquished death with life and who can therefore not only empathise with the suffering of others but can stand together with those victims of other genocides.

What better day to do it than on 24 April when we walk under the coffin of ‘the dead eternal’ and proclaim our faithfulness to eternal life? So can we begin to allow our present to define our past and wrest control of our destiny? The genocide was indisputably homicidal and legally intentional, as numerous historians have asserted time and again, and the victims are its perpetual reminder in Armenian psyches. But would our strength not become even greater if we also pour more of our energies - literally of our selves - into our living and thriving children, women and men for the sake of our collective future?

I remember my maternal grandfather placing me on his knee when I was a toddler barely out of diapers and recounting the morbid scenes he had witnessed with his own eyes when family relatives were being mutilated, killed, raped and dumped into pits by Ottoman Turks or their Kurdish cohorts. His eyes used to well up with tears of those painful memories, and this is perhaps why I committed myself many moons ago to honour the memory of all those Armenians - my family members included - who were killed by commission or omission some nine decades ago.

But I honestly do not believe that a March, a commemorative evening, a fiery sermon or a manifestation of jingoistic outrage are the true gateways toward honouring those memories behind which lie many Armenian familiar faces and names. A March is in some sense a social get-together for some Armenians just as Divine Liturgy on feast days has become another social gathering for some others. Truly honouring God, just like honouring those who died for our sakes, are far tougher choices. They are far tougher than any garrulous or rhetorical amble to the cenotaph or a half-mumbled Hayr Mer (Our Lord’s) prayer in church. Yet, I remain confident we Armenians have the forward-looking imagination to achieve this renewal by choosing what I described in my Constantinople Lecture on 25 November 2010 (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/ConstantinopleLecture) as “living unity over deathly disunity” and by recognising the faces of our own Armenian victims in the faces of all other victims of genocide. And even more intimately, would we not also see our own faces being mirrored in those other faces too?

As we draw perilously close to the 100th anniversary, I would simply submit that the sharpest riposte to endless Turkish spin and denial, one that is more pungent than solely lobbying countries for recognition and far more constructive than begging US presidents or UK prime ministers to pronounce the G-word, is to move forward rather than look backward.

So I re-submit this Easter Sunday question: are we taking up Christ’s Cross or do we take Christ up to the Cross?

Much as we need to do our homework as Armenians, Turkey and its allies must also do their homework and realise that they are not doing Armenians any favour by recognising the genocide but are first and foremost strengthening the moral fabric of their very own societies let alone unleashing the economic and political dividends that come out of such a step. So the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan - a practising Muslim - should know that according to the Holy Quran and the Saheeh al-Bukhari collection of hadiths, honesty and truthfulness are not only two essential traits for every Muslim but they also lead to righteousness. So when will Turkey become honest and truthful? When will it stop its denial and mendacities, its obfuscation of the truth and its incessant and complicit blackmail of other governments?

Mike O’Sullivan pointed out in a piece entitled ‘20th Century Mass Killings Remembered’ posted on the Ekklesia website on 18 April (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14653) that the atrocities of both the Armenian and Rwandan genocides were initiated in April - this very month. He also added that forgiveness for some Rwandan individuals was extremely difficult since they were so traumatised by their experiences that any sense of such forgiveness - even when forthcoming - was not always heartfelt.

I think I understand where he is coming from when I recall my grandfather’s tears. However, is Easter Sunday not an appropriate day to start remembering and re-affirming not only our own Armenian victims but also those Assyrians and Pontic Greeks who were killed during this same horrific genocide? Could we perhaps not go forward another small step and walk with the victims of other genocides including those in Darfur and elsewhere living their own hell today?

In his Easter homily at Canterbury Cathedral, Archbishop Rowan Williams reminded us all that “the joy of the resurrection has a unique place in Christian faith and imagination because this event breaks open the shell of the world we thought we knew and projects us into the new and mysterious realm in which victorious mercy and inexhaustible love make the rules.” That interpellation sits well with the British statesman and political thinker Edmund Burke who once also stated that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

Both those statements come together with elegant ease. Let us not tear them apart or forget the power of love in the face of evil or pain. Rather, let us recall that, “With pride comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2).


© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris, and he is a regular Ekklesia contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly, he was Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches. He is consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net His Easter Week reflections for Premier Christian Radio are documented here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/EasterWeek2011

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