Divine Liturgy Commemorating the Centenary of the Armenian Genocide

02 May 2015

Homily for the Divine Liturgy Commemorating the Centenary of the Armenian Genocide
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 2 May 2015

The twentieth century saw major advances in technology and communications, economy and human rights. Yet it was also the bloodiest century in history: we think of the mass deportations, starvation and extermination of perhaps 14 million people in Stalinist Russia and even more in Maoist China; the Holocaust of 6 million Jews under the Nazis, as well as gypsies, the handicapped and others; the massacres in Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica and Dafur. Altogether tens of millions were killed or tortured in attempts to exterminate whole peoples and cultures. But historians generally agree that first great genocide of the modern era – the model, in fact, for some subsequent ones – was the Մեծ Եղեռն, ‘the great crime’ of the Ottoman empire, in which 1 to 1.5 million Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians were killed.

Where, we wonder, was God in all this? Christians believe God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good – He is goodness itself – and so never directly intends or causes evil. Human beings, on the other hand, all too often choose evil: individually they commit sins, large or small, and in concert with others they sometimes commit grave atrocities. Human beings, not God, are responsible for those misdeeds and the terrible effects on innocent victims. Yet still we wonder why God permits such things, even if He does not directly will them. One traditional answer has been: that even when God allows evils to be perpetrated He ensures some greater good can come from them.  That can be hard to see at the time; hard, even a century later. But eventually we see the divine hand bringing good out of evil and realize things might otherwise have been even worse. We witness the blood of martyrs seeding the Church and experience divine grace conquering hatred and cruelty with reconciliation and solidarity. As the Portuguese saying goes: God writes straight with crooked lines.

It is a privilege to be invited by His Grace, the Primate of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand, Bishop Haigazoun Najarian, to preach during this Divine Liturgy in commemoration of the suffering of the Armenian people one century ago. We know that we are surrounded by a great company of martyrs. In recalling these things we resolve to do all we can to ensure they are never repeated, to work for reconciliation between all peoples and to keep calling down divine mercy and peace.

So I welcome to this basilica my brothers in Holy Orthodoxy: His Grace Bishop Najarian, with his clergy and Mr Sarkis Der Bedrossian, Chairman of his Diocesan Council; His Grace Bishop Daniel of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Sydney and Affiliated Regions; Very Rev. Yousif Jazrawi representing His Grace Archbishop Mar Meelis Zaia of Assyrian Church of the East; Rev. Fr. Apostolis, representing Their Graces Archbishop Stylianos and Bishop Seraphim of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Australia; Rev. Fr. Varghese Thomas representing Rt. Rev. Irinej, Bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Australia and New Zealand; and Very Rev. Fr. Shenouda Mansour, General Secretary of NSW Ecumenical Council. From other ecclesial communities I acknowledge: Rev. Hagop Sarkissian of the Armenian Evangelical Church; Rev. Krikor Youmoushakian of the Armenian Missionary Association; and Lt. Colonel Graham Durban of the Salvation Army.

I also salute my brothers and sisters of the Catholic Church: His Excellency Most Rev. Antoine Tarabay, Bishop of the Maronite Eparchy of Australia; Very Rev. Basil Soussanian of the Armenian Catholic Church of Australia; Rev. Fr Peter Dowd representing His Lordship Bishop Peter Comensoli of Broken Bay, with Fr Paul Finnucane; Mr Chris Meney, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Sydney; Very Rev. Paul Hilder, Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral; Sr Elizabeth Delaney SGS, Secretary of the National Council of Churches; Sr Giovanni Farquar RSJ, Director of the Commission for Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations; and other clergy, monks and nuns.

From civil society I warmly welcome: Hon. Gladys Berejiklian MP, Treasurer of New South Wales, representing the Premier, with several other parliamentarians; Councillors Sarkis Yedelian and Artine Etmekjian of Ryde Municipality; Mr Varoujan Iskenderian, representing the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh; Mr Edward Darbinian, representing the Republic of Armenia; representatives of Armenian political, religious, benevolent, educational, cultural and sport organizations in Australia; and many members and friends of the Armenian community. To everyone here: a very warm welcome.

Though mistreatment and pogroms were long the lot of Christians in the Ottoman empire, it was not until ANZAC eve, 24 April 1915, that the authorities determined to eliminate the Armenians altogether. Police first arrested hundreds of Armenian academics, professionals, clergy and other leaders in Constantinople, jailed, tortured and hastily killed them. Then came the house-to-house searches, summary arrests of the men and ‘resettlement’ in labour camps, military service or the tomb. Next, the women, children and infirm were driven out into the desert with whips and cudgels and at gunpoint. The eyewitness accounts and photos are heart-wrenching: corpses littered the way; nude women were crucified; little children were starved to death; and the bodies of babies floated on rivers. An enormous population ‘disappeared’ into the Prophet Ezekiel’s nightmare of ‘the valley of dry bones’ (Ezek 37:1-14).

The University of Minnesota’s Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies estimates that there were over two million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1914; by 1922 there were only 387,800 left.  Most of the survivors got out. Christians in Turkey dwindled from perhaps 20% of the population a century ago to less than 0.2% today; their rich cultural patrimony of churches, monasteries, libraries and art has been systematically destroyed; and their history denied.  While politicians and diplomats argue over the facts and how best to describe them, historians and popes agree: this was genocide.

Dzidzernagapert, the Armenian genocide Memorial in Armenia

Where, we still ask, was God in all this? Where was goodness amidst such appalling evil? Well, there were some clear examples of human solidarity and divine grace at work. Pope Benedict XV wrote to Sultan Mehmet V imploring him to intervene to stop the massacre. The Sharif of Mecca, Al-Husayn Ibn Ali, ordered Muslims to protect the dislocated Armenians. At Musa Dagh courageous Turkish townsfolk defied orders to expel 5,000 Armenian villagers with whom they had lived peacefully for generations; instead they hid and protected them until French ships evacuated them. There were other Turks at the time and since who have spoken out about the massacre. And even as far away as Australia people sought to assist the refugees, widows and orphans. My brother Dominican, Archbishop Robert Spence of Adelaide, was one of these, joining the public protests and sitting on the executive of the Australasian Armenian Relief Fund.

As Pope Francis recently observed, in the story of the Armenians we confront the mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of evil) and ‘the darkest forces in the human heart’ and we wonder whether good can ultimately triumph.  We ask this as a very similar wave of evil washes over us a century later: ‘Islamic State’ and its affiliates seek to annihilate the Christians of the Middle East, Africa, even Rome. Where Syria and Iraq once welcomed the survivors of the Armenian holocaust, I.S. has engaged in rape and rapine, beheading and crucifixion. Huge numbers are again being forced to flee. Man’s inhumanity to man seems doomed forever to repeat itself. Meanwhile, as Pope Francis has pointed out, the global media, international organizations and powerful governments engage in a “complicit silence” about the persecution of Christians, standing “mute and inert before such unacceptable crimes” as they’ve done before.  As Adolf Hitler notoriously said in 1939 while planning his ‘Final Solution’: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Yet Christians remain hopeful. By a strange quirk of the calendar, the latest day Easter can occur in the Western Church – roughly once a century – is 24th or 25th April. So the anniversary of the Armenian holocaust always falls in the season of Easter. In our Gospel passage James and John volunteer to drink from the cup of wrath that the Lord must drink (Mk 10:35-45). In fact only our “great high priest”, Jesus Christ, could fully drink of that cup, so freely and lovingly that His death would bring victory over death (Heb 4:14-16). Yet as the Holy Apostles discovered, we can indeed pass with Him through suffering and death to the glory of the saints and so one day sit near His throne of mercy. Easter is the triumph of life over death, of goodness over evil, of promise over memory, of forgiveness over rancour, of love over hate, of flesh and spirit in the valley of dry bones. It tells of the power of Christ to transform innocent suffering into the witness of martyrs and the witness of the martyrs into what Pope Francis calls “the ecumenism of blood”. Christians die with Him and with each other that they might so live in this life and the next. The great majority of the thousand bishops and clergy recently canonised by the Armenian Apostolic Church, along with hundreds of thousands of lay faithful, were of the Armenian Church; but there were Assyrian, Greek and Latin Christians too, including Archbishop Ignatius Maloyan. Before he was martyred this Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Mardin declared, “It does not please God that I should deny Jesus my Saviour. To shed my blood for my faith is the strongest desire of my heart.” 

Since the earliest Christian centuries, Armenian Christians have known that their worship is surrounded by a multitude of martyrs. They know that they must survive and find it somewhere in their hearts to forgive and rebuild. A story is told from one century ago of a Turkish troop raiding and looting an Armenian house. They killed the aged parents and raped the daughters. The officer in charge used the eldest daughter for his own purposes until she escaped. She later trained as a nurse. Time passed and she found herself in a ward of wounded Turkish officers. One night, by the light of a lantern, she saw the dreaded face of that officer. He was so gravely ill that without exceptional nursing he would die. But as the days passed, he gradually recovered. One day, the doctor stood by the bed and said to him: “But for that nurse’s devotion to you, you would be dead.” He looked at her and said, “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” “Yes,” she replied, “we have met before.” “Why didn’t you kill me?” he asked. She replied, “I am a follower of the One who said ‘Love your enemies’.”

1.St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia, 2, 3 ad 1 citing St Augustine Enchir. xi.
2.”Deus escrive certo por lingas tortas”.
3.Lela Gilbert, “Why Pope Francis was right to call the Armenian massacres ‘genocide’,” Catholic Herald 16 April 2015 http://www.catholicherald. co.uk/issues/april-17th-2015/the-christian-holocaust/; Lela Gilbert, “Armenian genocide: 100 years of remembrance,” http://philosproject.org/ armenian-genocide-centennial/
4.See William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1997).
5.International Association of Genocide Scholars, Affirmation of the Armenian Genocide, Montreal, 11-13 June 1997; Taner Akçam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (2006); Dadrian Vahakn, The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus. (1995); Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and Collective Violence against the Armenians 1789-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2015); John Kifner, “The Armenian genocide of 1915: An overview,” New York Times 7 December 2007; St John Paul II and Karekin II, Common Declaration on the Armenian Genocide, Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia, 27 September 2001 http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/2001/september/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20010927_decl-jp-ii-karekin-ii.html; Pope Francis, Address to the Synod of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Church, 9 April 2015 http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/april/documents/papa-francesco_20150409_sinodo-chiesa-armena-cattolica.html; Pope Francis, Address and Homily for the Faithful of the Armenian Rite, 12 April 2015 https://w2.vatican.va/ content/francesco/en/homilies/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150412_omelia-fedeli-rito-armeno.html
6.Pope Francis, Address to the Synod of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Church
7.Pope Francis has made this point repeatedly e.g. Address and Homily for the Faithful of the Armenian Rite, 12 April 20.
8.Nina Shea, “West ignores Islamists’ aim to annihilate Christians,” http://www.philly.com/philly/gallery/20150412_West_ignores_Islamists__aim_to_annihilate_Christians.html?viewGallery=y
10.Geoffrey Wainwright tells this story in Doxology (1980), p. 434.