A major event for the Christian Unity Gathering of the National Council of Churches on May 6-9 near Washington, D.C., was a commemoration of the Armenian genocide at the Washington National Cathedral. This year 2015 marks a century since the start of the genocide in 1915, perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey, in which 1.5 million people died in mass killing that continued to 1923.
The May 7 service titled “The Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide: A Prayer for Justice and Peace,” was co-sponsored by the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The main seating section of the cathedral was packed with Armenian families from across the country, representing the generations descended from survivors of the genocide and refugees who were welcomed into the United States.
Vice President Biden was among the thousands who attended along with President of the Republic of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan, Orthodox leaders His Holiness Karekin II Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians and His Holiness Aram I Catholiciso of the Great House of Cilicia, Episcopal presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori who welcomed the gathering to the Episcopal cathedral, World Council of Churches general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit who gave the homily, and numerous ecumenical and interfaith representatives.
Church of the Brethren representatives at the service were Wendy McFadden, publisher of Brethren Press, and Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services.
Armenian president Sargsyan noted the role of the United States in his address, although the US government has yet to acknowledge the slaughter as a genocide in political deference to Turkey. “In our century-long struggle for justice and truth, we have constantly felt the support of the USA, among other nations,” Sargsyan said. “Many more would have died and the fate of many survivors would have been more cruel, had friendly countries, including the USA, not stood by the side of our people in that difficult period.”
The religious leaders who gave messages called for continued efforts at truth telling and recognition of the genocide, and for work toward reconciliation and the prevention of any future genocides. Speakers recalled other genocides that the world has suffered in the intervening 100 years–the Jewish Holocaust, the genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda–as well as the continuing persecution of Orthodox and other Christians in the Middle East, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
“Reconciliation…means accepting the truth, as the Bible says, the truth frees us,” said Armenian Orthodox leader Aram I in a message that was greeted with a surge of applause and a standing ovation. “The truth liberates us from self-centeredness… from all forms of arrogance and ignorance. Indeed this is the Christian way and I believe this is the human way. Let’s build a world in which injustice is replaced by justice…intolerance by reconciliation. That is the way.”
Episcopal presiding bishop Schori read a statement from the NCC Governing Board that affirmed the survival of the Armenian people and their “resurrection” from the ashes of genocide. “We find inspiration in the call of the Armenian people to stand against the evil of genocide wherever and whenever it is committed,” the statement said, in part.
“We celebrate the resurrection of the Armenian people. The Christian faith is all about hope, and all about the victory of life over death. Like Jesus Christ, who rose from the tomb to give life to the world (John 8:12), the Armenian people rose from the ashes of genocide to become again a vibrant people among all the peoples of the world. They are a powerful witness to faith in the resurrection, and a profound testimony to God’s promise to remember those who take refuge in him (Psalm 18:30). And to this, we say, ‘Amen.’”
The full text of the National Council of Churches statement:
Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide
This evening’s commemoration is a solemn occasion. We are gathered with our sisters and brothers in the Armenian Orthodox Church and the wider Armenian community to give witness to the Armenian Genocide. We are also gathered with them to acknowledge their faith and resilience in the face of such adversity. And so, we gather together to remember, to mourn, to find inspiration, and yes, even to celebrate.
We remember that the Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century, and that it marked the beginning of what is commonly referred to as the bloodiest, most violent century in all of human history. During the horrific period beginning in 1915 and continuing until 1923, more than 1 million Armenians (and others) were killed, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. The dead were buried in the land where they had lived for generations. The refugees were dispersed throughout the world, and some to the United States, where their future generations have now become the friends and neighbors with whom we stand today.
We mourn the dead. We stand tonight among the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who were killed. We listen to the language of the Armenian people, and of their great and proud heritage. We pray the prayers of their ancient Church, asking for God’s mercy upon the people and the nation that was first in history to become Christian. Tonight, in solidarity, their forebears become our forebears, their language becomes our language, and their prayers become our prayers.
We find inspiration in the call of the Armenian people to stand against the evil of genocide wherever and whenever it is committed. And in the last century, genocide has been committed all too often, and in too many places: in Europe (the Holocaust) in the 1930s and 1940s; in Cambodia in the late 1970s; in Rwanda in 1994; in Bosnia in the mid-1990s; and in Darfur in the early 2000s. In addition, mass atrocities and crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated today in many parts of the world, especially in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In the face of such evil, standing among our Armenian brothers and sisters we affirm that our work to end genocide is not finished.
Finally, we celebrate the resurrection of the Armenian people. The Christian faith is all about hope, and all about the victory of life over death. Like Jesus Christ, who rose from the tomb to give life to the world (John 8:12), the Armenian people rose from the ashes of genocide to become again a vibrant people among all the peoples of the world. They are a powerful witness to faith in the resurrection, and a profound testimony to God’s promise to remember those who take refuge in him (Psalm 18:30). And to this, we say, “Amen.”
— Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for shared ecumenical witness among Christians in the United States. The NCC’s 37 member communions from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American, and Living Peace churches, include 45 million people in more than 100,000 congregations across the nation. For more information about the NCC go to www.nationalcouncilofchurches.us .