Armenian commemoration visit

The Bishop visited Armenia as part of commemoration events marking 100 years since the start of the WW1 Armenian massacres. As part of his visit he delivered a speech at a Global Forum “Against the Crime of Genocide” in the capital city, Yerevan.

“Churches against the Crime of Genocide: Human Life – God’s Gift”
It is a very great privilege to be present at such a solemn moment in the history of the Armenian nation. Coming from islands in the far West I have come to the oldest Christian nation on earth. The 1700th anniversary of the Great Conversion was marked by a sign of hope for the future in the consecration of the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in this city of Yerevan. His Holiness presided over the ceremony which reminded us all that remembering the saints is a religious duty and that such remembering of the past shapes the future.

Historians are still debating whether Hitler actually used the words attributed to him as he asserted that future ages would not remember his ghastly crimes, after all “who remembers the Armenians”.  He may not have used those precise words but like so many of the great criminals in history, he was confident that as the victors impose their version of history on the vanquished, his crimes would be forgotten.

The Armenian genocide was the greatest atrocity of World War I, it was the Great Catastrophe and the prelude to a horrifying half century. Timothy Snyder in his recent book “Bloodlands” describes the sufferings and the death of millions of people in Middle Europe between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Forgetting this would be yet another betrayal. Remembering is a duty especially in our own day when the suffering of Christians in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and Libya cries out for recognition and relief. With honourable exceptions like the Royal Family of Jordan too little is being done to assist Christians in their ancient homelands. Our act of remembrance is a sign that such crimes against humanity will not be forgotten.

The past cannot be changed but we are responsible for how we remember it. What we extract and carry forward from what has gone before creates possibilities for the future or closes them off. In a sense we remember the future.

In this creative act of remembering, impartiality is not possible but honesty is a duty. Remembering is not so much taking down a file from the shelf containing some fixed representation of some past event as it about recombining multiple sources of information and experience. That is why the writing of history is always in the end, an art rather than a science although it is an art which must be practised with proper discipline.  
Public remembering in the form of commemorations, saints days and festivals have always contributed powerfully to the coherence and sense of identity among groups or nations. What and who we remember as individuals plays a vital role in forming our own identity. We are sad when with the onset of dementia more and more of a person’s memories are lost until that most painful point when someone we love cannot recognise us. Amnesia can undo civilisations as well. They die in the night when no one can remember why once upon time they inspired self-sacrifice.

Destiny and history are intimately connected as was evident in this city when the popular response to the 50th anniversary of the massacres of 1915 made a potent contribution to the development of an independent Armenia. If a person only has a sense of history without a sense of destiny they can be very tedious. On the other hand anyone who has a sense of destiny without a sense of history is certainly very dangerous.

The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide proscribes acts including killing, forced adoption, inflicting physical or mental harm when done with “an intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. The fate of the Armenians and the Syriac Christians in 1915 would seem to be a clear example. There has been much scholarly attention in recent years to the question of intent with Raymond Kevorkian’s book “The Armenian Genocide” [2006] an outstanding contribution. The new consensus focuses on the Unionist leaders personally and their self-conscious aspiration to modernity. Eric Zurcher in his “Turkey: A Modern History” argues that “many Young Turks had come under the influence of biological materialism and social Darwinism and saw the world in terms of a struggle for survival between different nations”. Many of the episodes of 20th century “ethnic cleansing” studied by Michael Mann in “The Dark Side of Democracy” have “modernisation” and state-building as a central theme rather than being examples of some reversion to primitive passion.

Alongside more conceptual accounts there are of course so many precious personal stories. Everyone who honours the Armenian story is grateful for the courage of Hrant Dink whose work released a flood of memories especially of forced adoptions. The then Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan declared after Dink’s assassination – “A bullet was fired at freedom of thought and democratic life in Turkey”.

Talk about forgiveness when there has been no confession is too glib but the Armenian story is moving forward. Your ancient nation settled on the Anatolian plateau for millennia has always demonstrated extraordinary resourcefulness in maintaining Armenian culture, despite being threatened by a succession of competing and opposing Empires. There are so many vivid illustrations of Armenian resourcefulness. I particularly enjoy the thought of a party of Western Capuchin missionaries who in 1707 arrived in Lhasa, believing themselves to be the very first Christians to reach the forbidden city of Tibet – only to find 5 prosperous Armenian merchants already in residence.

Jesus Christ at supper with his friends on the night in which he was betrayed said “do this in remembrance of me”. It was not an invitation to recall an event which would recede into “far away and long ago”. They were to re-member him rather than dis-member him by quarrelling. Nourished by his story they were to be his members, his arms and legs, his feet and hands so that in their communities Jesus himself would be really present. In your solemn commemoration and in the outpouring of compassion for those innocents who perished in 1915, I pray that you are preparing for great Armenian centuries to come.

On Friday April 24th we shall remember in particular the deportation and murder of the Armenian intelligentsia of Istanbul among them Daniel Varoujan, poet and principal of the St Gregory the Illuminator School in the city. In his poem “The Sowing” he declares,

“Sower, sow in the name of the Lord’s sacrament,
Let luminous seeds overflow your fingers;
Tomorrow in each and every milky plant
A portion of Jesus’s body will ripen.
Sow and sow yet even beyond the border,
Sow like the stars and also sow like the waves.
Don’t worry if birds plunder all your seeds,
Tomorrow God will in their place, sow you pearls”.