Armenian Genocide Sparked 100 Years of Brethren Response to Disaster and Conflict

photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
The Forget-Me-Not flower is the official emblem of the Armenian Genocide centennial commemoration. These pins were handed out to participants at the commemoration service at the Washington National Cathedral on May 7, 2015.

The commemoration of 100 years since the beginning of the Armenian genocide in 1915 also marks nearly a century of Church of the Brethren compassionate response to those affected by disasters and conflicts. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in the genocide that occurred from 1915 to 1923. Brethren began responding to the needs of Armenian survivors and refugees beginning in 1917.

“In 1917, the very heart of the church was shaken by the news of the Armenian genocide,” explained Church of the Brethren general secretary Stanley J. Noffsinger in a letter sent to the congregations of the denomination. “Knowledge of such atrocities was a greater burden than the Brethren could tolerate. The 1917 Annual Conference voted to set aside existing guidelines for missions in foreign lands in order to provide funding and support for the Armenian people affected so horrifically by the violence and displacement.

“A temporary committee was named to lead the relief effort. In addition, delegates also approved secondment of staff to the American Committee for Relief in the Near East, to ensure that funding and support for the Armenian people would be carried out without interference.”

Noffsinger noted that from 1917-1921, “our church of approximately 115,000 members contributed $267,000 to the effort–an equivalent of $4.98 million in 2015 dollars, using the Consumer Price Index computation.

“The fact of Brethren responding to human tragedy has not been changed by the passing of years,” Noffsinger added, comparing the current Nigeria Crisis Response to the response of the church 100 years ago. “In October 2014, the board committed $1.5 million dollars ($1 million from denominational assets and $500,000 from the Emergency Disaster Fund) to start the relief effort in Nigeria. In the months since, individuals and congregations have given over $1 million to the Nigeria Crisis Fund, with gifts continuing to come in.

“In a time when many question the relevance and vitality of the church in the United States,” Noffsinger wrote, “I want to shout from the highest hill: ‘Thanks be to God for the generosity, compassion, and love the Brethren have shown for the people of good faith in Nigeria–just as they did 100 years ago for and with the Armenian people!’”

The following text is from a brochure provided by the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern):

Courtesy of Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern)

One hundred years ago, on the night of April 24, 1915, the genocide of more than 1,500,000 Armenians began. The first to be singled out and massacred were the leaders and intellectuals of the Armenian communities in Ottoman Turkey; when it was over, two out of three Armenians living in that country had perished–the victims of a systematic extermination of Turkey’s Armenian population.

The entire Armenian population was uprooted from its indigenous homeland, which it had inhabited for over 3,000 years.

Hundreds of Armenian churches, monasteries, schools, and cultural centers in Ottoman Turkey were destroyed.

Raphael Lemkin–who first coined the term “genocide” and is considered the father of the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention–cited the fate of Ottoman Turkey’s Armenian population as an example of what constituted a genocide.

In their brutality, the Ottoman Turks set the tone for the 20th century: a dreadful tone which would be heard again in the Nazi death camps, in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Rwanda and Darfur. And it echoes ominously in our own time, in desperate places where “ethnic cleansing” has become a policy of state, instead of a crime before man and God.

The dark episode that came to be known as the Armenian Genocide continued until 1923, and it shocked world opinion of the time. The Turkish atrocities committed against men, women, and children of Armenian descent were extensively documented, in eyewitness accounts, in the official archives of the governments of the United States, Great Britain, France, Austria, and Germany, and in the world press. The “New York Times” published over 194 news articles–including the first-hand accounts of American and European diplomats, survivors of the massacres, and other witnesses–on the plight of the Armenian people.

And yet–incredibly–100 years later, the Turkish government is still denying that the Armenian Genocide ever took place. The arguments and tactics they employ in their campaign of denial are disingenuous and intellectually bankrupt; but they are sadly familiar to the serious scholars and historians who, in recent years, have had to wage a battle against deniers of the Holocaust, the Soviet Terror, and other episodes of institutionalized inhumanity.

For those Armenian-Americans who survived the Genocide and found haven in this country, April 24 remains a day of remembrance–of lost loved ones, uprooted lives, and a vicious crime against an entire people. But it is also a day of reflection on the sanctity of life, the blessing of survival, and the obligation we owe to our fellow human beings not to forsake them in their hour of desperation.

The Armenian children who lost their childhood in 1915 are mostly gone now. In life they bore their bitter memories with courage and dignity; but 100 years later, their descendants still await justice, the restless souls of the martyrs still await peace. Their descendants pledge always to remember the Armenian Genocide.

What all people of conscience should remember:

In this milestone year, take a moment to remember the victims of the first genocide of the 20th century, along with all the other people around the world who have suffered in crimes against humanity.

“I have given orders to my death units to exterminate, without mercy or pity, men, women, and children belonging to the Polish-speaking race. Only in this manner can we acquire the vital territory which we need. After all, who remembers today the extermination of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler, Aug. 22, 1939, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland.

— Text and images for the brochure on the Armenian Genocide are by Christopher Zakian, Artur Petrosyan, and Karine Abalyan. For more information about the Armenian Genocide visit www.armenian-genocide.org , www.armeniangenocidecentennial.org , and www.agccaer.org .