Easter, genocide and moving beyond the stasis of collective memory

By Harry Hagopian
April 25, 2014

On 24 April 1915, close to a year into World War I, two hundred Armenian community leaders living in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) were rounded up and force-marched into detention by the Ottoman authorities.

This gruesome episode proved to be no more than the beginning of the Armenian genocide in which well over one million men, women and children had their lives expunged wilfully, woefully and brutally. And this week, in 2014, the children and grandchildren of those Armenian victims who populate so many different countries of the MENA region and live across all five continents commemorate the 99th anniversary of this genocide.

For almost a century, Armenians and their friends and supporters have been calling for the recognition of this gruesome chapter in the history of humankind - or what one priest called rather ominously ‘the granddaddy of all genocides’.

So let us establish from the start that there is no shortage of historians, academics, institutes, lawyers and writers worldwide – not least the International Association of Genocide Scholars – who have acknowledged unequivocally the genocide-driven nature of the atrocities meted out against Armenians during WWI. The problem is not whether this qualifies as genocide – it does – but rather that the problems are overpoweringly political in nature. Many countries – not least key ones such as the USA, the UK and Israel – would not wish to upset Turkey as a NATO ally or strategic partner with any recognition that Turkey denies vehemently to date.

But how are Armenians meant to cope with those events that unfolded almost a century ago? I addressed this theme in my talk entitled The Armenian Genocide : Remembering our sorrows and articulating our hopes? at St Werburgh’s Church in Dublin on 29 April 2013 in the presence of the Archbishop of Dublin as well as the Primate of the Armenian Orthodox Primate of Great Britain and Ireland. It is viewable here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18415

Indeed, over many decades, Armenians and Turks have been caught up in a vortex of mutual recrimination, bitterness and [even] the occasional guilt transference. Armenians insist upon the recognition of sins committed against them by Ottoman Turks, while Turkey denies there ever was genocide. So where do both peoples go from here - after a standoff that has lasted for so long?

Hebrew scripture might provide us with counsel regarding such instances: “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast ... know ... that I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth ...” (Jr 9:23 -24). If I were to paraphrase this verse from the Old Testament, I would view it in one sense as a call for humility in front of the powers of love, justice and righteousness and therefore a tough encouragement for me to try and forgive the other despite their bullying transgressions so that we can perhaps learn to move forward together.

Indeed, I believe it is high time for both peoples to move on, but there is a clear need for an acknowledgement that a wrong has been committed against a largely defenceless people. Frankly, the Turkish denials are ludicrous, or else where did two-thirds of all those Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey prior to 1915 disappear to suddenly? This is why such an acknowledgement will inevitably facilitate the redemptive process of forgiveness that alone can ultimately help both parties begin to heal the pain of memory.

To my mind, there is also a spine-chilling and quite deadly vinculum between the Armenian genocide during WWI and the Jewish holocaust during WWII on the walls of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. A quote from Adolf Hitler in 1939 gloats, “Who today remembers the massacre of the Armenian people?” In the words of the American philosopher George Santayana who once warned that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, Hitler’s question implied that the ‘civilised’ world would shrug off the ethnocide of Jews just as it had accepted the Armenian mass exterminations some twenty-three years earlier.

Should we allow this to happen again and again and merely look the other way? This Thursday, on 24 April 2014, which is the worldwide commemorative day of the Armenian genocide, the Primate of the Armenian Orthodox Church in the UK & Ireland joins me and Marcus Jones as we present the ninth of our MENA Analysis series on Premier Radio. It is our pleasure to welcome Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian into our studio and engage with him on the impact of this genocide upon Armenian Christians today and their reaction to those acts that targeted so many clergy and laity alike. What message would he wish to leave with us? How does an Orthodox diocesan bishop of a most ancient Christian church view forgiveness? What is the way forward?

But today, in this blog, I have my own message too. When I think of Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, Rwandan, Darfurian or other acts of genocide across this global village that we call Planet Earth, and when I also apply the five provisions of the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, I pray to find the best way to challenge this culture of death. I suppose I can always think of my own relatives who also lost their lives in large numbers and opt for the vindictive approach of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. After all, this is the law of retaliation, or what we lawyers define in Roman law as lex talionis. But is it the way?

This week, we are still celebrating the paschal joy of Easter, when our Lord and Saviour vanquished death and overcame the morbidity of the tomb. So I will choose life to combat death: every Armenian alive today is an indictment of this culture of death. And in so doing, I am also mindful of that wonderful and admittedly challenging verse from Scripture: “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). But are we resilient enough to steep ourselves in this faithful culture too?

The author's latest 'MENA show' broadcast on Thursday 24 April on Premier Christian Radio. The podcast will shortly be available at: http://www.premier.org.uk/features/MENA.aspx#sthash.kwen9lh3.dpuf

* See also: 'One year to the centenary of the Armenian Genocide': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20454

* More on the Armenian Genocide from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/armeniangenocide

* More on Easter from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/Easter

© 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. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.