When Anahit Gharibyan is asked about her Armenian ancestry, she modestly smiles and her voice swells with emotion as she recounts the grandparents, aunts, uncles and many other family members who make up her extensive family tree.
Yet her eyes quickly fill with tears recounting tidbits of tales passed down through generations about the horrors her ancestors survived, and the unspeakable atrocities that occurred exactly one century ago in their native homeland.
Known in Armenian as Medz Yeghern, the “Great Crime,” the Armenian Genocide was a massacre of ethnic Armenians by the government of Turkey in 1915, during the First World War.
Gharibyan was among more than 3,000 people who joined dozens of religious and civic leaders from across the archdiocese and throughout the state — including Archbishop José H. Gomez and keynote speaker Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — for an ecumenical prayer service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on April 14 to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.
The evening prayer service began with two Armenian children carrying a lantern, symbolizing the light of Christ, into the cathedral, which was filled with solemn and beautiful live music performed by a choir and musicians. During the service, participating religious leaders recited special prayers and psalms and shared personal remarks regarding the genocide, addressing the importance of remembering such tragedies to ensure they never happen again.
“We are all descendants of the Armenian Genocide. My grandparents were survivors,” Gharibyan recently told The Tidings. “It’s so heartbreaking to imagine what happened to all the Armenians that were massacred … how they were killing kids in front of their mothers. … So many little angels passed away. … May it never be repeated in the world again.”
Churches and denominations represented at the prayer service included the Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenian Catholic Church, Armenian Church, Western Diocese, Armenian Evangelical Union of North America, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco, Marionite Catholic Church, Orthodox Church in America, Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, and United Methodist Church.
What is now the country of Turkey has historically been the Armenian homeland. Armenia adopted Christianity as the state religion in 301 A.D., making them the first country to do so. Collectively, Armenians have comprised a Christian “island” in a mostly Muslim region.
The Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople on May 29, 1453. Mehmed II, the sultan at the time of the conquest, allowed the Eastern Orthodox Church to maintain its authority and land under the conditions that they accept Ottoman authority.
Armenian diaspora worldwide is a direct outcome of the genocide. As of 1990, the Los Angeles metropolitan area had the largest population of Armenians outside of Armenia. In 1980, 56 percent of Armenians in Los Angeles County resided in Hollywood’s Little Armenia.
“We stand in solidarity with the proud people of Armenia and their descendants here in Los Angeles and around the world,” said Archbishop Gomez during his welcoming remarks. “As we know, the Armenian people were among the first peoples to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ more than 1,700 years ago. And, sadly, we also know that thousands of our brothers and sisters became martyrs for the name of Christ during the tragic events that happened 100 years ago.
“So we pray tonight for the healing of memories and for the conversion of hearts,” added the archbishop. “May this anniversary become for all an occasion of humble and sincere reflection, and may every heart be open to forgiveness, which is a source of peace and renewed hope. We join Pope Francis tonight in praying that the people of Armenia and Turkey may walk the path of peace.”
The prayer service was held just days after Pope Francis described the tragic slaughter of a century ago as “the first genocide of the 20th century,” when 1.5 million Armenians were killed under the Ottoman Empire.
On August 2, 1914, the Ottoman Empire secretly allied with Germany, joining the First World War with the main objective of recovering territories in Eastern Anatolia, which had been lost during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. In 1915, the Turkish government used potential alliances between Imperial Russia and Christian Armenians as a pretext for treating the entire Armenian population as an enemy within the empire.
On May 29, 1915, a Temporary Law of Deportation (“Tehcir Law”) was passed, allowing the Ottoman government the military authorization to deport all those it “sensed” as a threat to national security. The law enabled the confiscation of Armenian property and the slaughter of Armenians.
“They killed our ancestress, took our homes, stores, farms, lands, they raped our mothers and sisters, killed our babies in their mother’s wombs,” said Father Armenag Bedrossian, pastor of the Armenian Church, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Los Angeles. “They wanted to erase us from Mother Earth.”
To date, Turkey denies the killings constituted genocide — claiming instead that the deaths resulted from civil war and political unrest — and insists the total death toll has been inflated.
On April 14, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan publicly condemned Pope Francis for using the term “genocide” to describe the 1915 mass killings of Armenians, and warned him not to make such a statement again. As of 2014, at least 22 countries, including the U.S., have recognized the events as genocide.
The term “genocide” did not exist at the time of these massacres. That phrase was coined by Jewish-Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1943.
As a law student at Lvov University, he became interested in attempts to prosecute the perpetrators of the Armenian massacre. Lemkin wrote, “I was shocked. Why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?”
In 1948, the United Nations unanimously voted to adopt the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was largely a result of Lemkin’s proposal to treat the destruction of national, racial and religious groups as an international crime. Lemkin invoked the Armenian Genocide as the definitive example of 20th century genocide; “The sort of thing Hitler did to the Jews […] the Turks did to the Armenians.”
In 2000’s “Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution,” the U.S. Congress stated that despite international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, “the failure of the domestic and international authorities to punish those responsible [...] is a reason why similar genocides have recurred and may recur in the future,” and that “needless suffering” could have been spared had the verdicts against the chief organizers of the genocide, Minister of War Enver, Minister of the Interior Talaat and Minister of the Navy Jemal been enforced.
“The loss of 1.5 million souls is always something we can’t comprehend. … It is something so big and so horrible,” said Garcetti in his keynote address. “We heard what Pope Francis said, the courage that he had, but it shouldn’t take courage or be called courage to speak truth.
“In this city of angels … you see a reflection of an Armenian nation that will never be kept down … and that can never be erased from the face of this earth,” he continued. “This city is a territory that is neutral, where we can put down our divisions and speak the truth: that a genocide occurred, that 1.5 million [people were killed], and we have a responsibility to make sure that everybody on this earth recognizes that.”