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Armenia's best use of a genocide's anniversary

The dominant church in Armenia has used the 100th anniversary of the 1915-23 genocide to honor the victims in hopes this act of love will liberate Armenians from hatred toward the Turks. The canonization is one sign of both sides inching toward reconciliation.

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    Armenians attend service in Echmiadzin, the religious center of the Armenian Church outside the Armenian capital, Yerevan, April 23. The Armenian Apostolic Church, the country's dominant religion, held services Thursday to canonize all victims of the genocide that began April 24, 1915.
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For the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the Armenian Apostolic Church decided to conduct an act of love and appreciation. It canonized all the victims, who numbered as many as 1.5 million. The ceremony on Thursday was not so much about the Ottoman Turks, who started the slaughter on April 24, 1915. Nor was it about modern Turkey, whose leaders still deny the genocide. Rather, as Bishop Bagrat Galstanyan told The Guardian, “We have to liberate our own people from hostility and hatred.”

Many Armenians have lately begun to worry that they have long united worldwide in hatred of the Turks, especially of their denial of the role of their former empire in the first genocide of the 20th century. Yet in the canonization, the church saw a chance to heal Armenians as much as send a message to Turkey.

The ceremony was one more signal that the two peoples, who lived together for centuries, may be searching in their own hearts for a way to reconcile and perhaps lessen tensions between their two nations.

Armenia, a Christian nation, and Turkey, which is largely Muslim, still keep their border closed. In 2009, they came close to normalizing ties. Last year, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey tacitly acknowledged the massacre to Armenians by referring to “our shared pain.” And the current prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, announced a church service for the victims would be held in Istanbul for the 100th anniversary.

In a recent poll by the Caucasus Research Resource Center, more than half of Armenians support opening the border while a third are against it. About 40 percent are positive toward reconciliation while 30 percent are against it. But only 9 percent said it was possible that Turkey would recognize the genocide in the next five to 10 years.

Last year, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, offered Turkey and Armenia the example of how his country achieved reconciliation with France in the years after two world wars and decades of hatred. “After a difficult century, we have reconciled by not keeping silent about our historical responsibility,” he said, but by “working through the horrific things that happened.”

In a recent book, “There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond,” Armenian-American writer Meline Toumani asks if Armenians have paid a high price in their “obsession” with the genocide and their drive for everyone, not only Turks, to recognize it. “As the [Armenian] diaspora evolved and assimilated, the only thing that everybody agreed on was that the Turks hated us and we hated the Turks. This trumped everything,” she writes.

And in a New York Times opinion piece, she suggests that Armenians ask “the question of what healing looks like beyond the use of a single word [genocide]; of how children can be taught about their histories in a way that does not leave them hating the descendants of their ancestors’ killers.”

Both Turks and Armenians may be using this anniversary as an opportunity to deal with the issues of denial or hatred still surrounding the genocide. As more Turks acknowledge the historical record, more Armenians are recognizing how hatred of Turks has led nowhere. A ceremony to honor the victims is one more step toward the necessary reconciliation.

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