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By Peter O'Dwyer
Today marks the anniversary of a truly shameful atrocity. On this date, a systematic and organized attempt to exterminate an entire people kicked off with the arrest of 250 Armenian notables by the Ottoman Empire. The vast majority of those arrested would come to a brutal end.
A century ago the world was in the throes of its first global war. As the First World War spun out of control, age-old notions of fair play and the laws of war were discarded for expediency. Millions of civilians would die from disease, aerial bombardment, U-Boat attacks, and a naval blockade so harsh that even food was considered war material.
Total war had come of age.
But not all of these deaths were simply a consequence of unscrupulous policies. In the Ottoman Empire, the precursor to modern Turkey, noncombatants were deliberately targeted for extermination — men and women who posed no threat and who need not have died.
To the Ottomans, the minority Armenian people, who were largely Oriental Orthodox with some Catholics and Protestants, had long been considered second-class citizens to the Muslim Turks. But simple prejudice would turn deadly when the Armenians began to be seen as potential sympathizers to Russia, the Ottomans' nemesis.
The genocide began on April 24, 1915 with the arrest of Armenian community leaders, and would escalate quickly. Entire villages were emptied, their populations gathered together and burned en masse. The Turks would load boats with Armenians and then sink them in the sea, drowning thousands. And thousands more were marched into the Syrian desert to die of exposure and starvation.
All told, when the slaughter ended, estimates of the death toll reach 1.5 million Armenians. The sheer scale and premeditation of the killings led to the coining of the term “genocide,” which would be used for the first time in history to describe the massacres carried out by the Turks.
Turkey refuses to acknowledge its culpability, even in the face of overwhelming proof. Turkish denials of the genocide have long since transitioned from obstinacy to farce. Few of the perpetrators were ever charged. There has been no attempt to bring closure to the Armenian people.
So why should we as Catholics bother to mark this grim date? The Armenian Genocide remains a textbook example of Muslim violence against Christians, violence that is occurring today. Christians are now being murdered in some of the exact same places as their forefathers were a century ago. The lessons of the past have not been learned. The Holy Father recognizes this, stating the following in a Mass April 12 for the proclamation of St. Gregory of Narek, attended by many Armenian Rite Catholics:
On a number of occasions I have spoken of our time as a time of war, a third world war which is being fought piecemeal, one in which we daily witness savage crimes, brutal massacres and senseless destruction. Sadly, today too we hear the muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenceless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death—decapitated, crucified, burned alive—or forced to leave their homeland.
Today too we are experiencing a sort of genocide created by general and collective indifference, by the complicit silence of Cain, who cries out: “What does it matter to me? Am I my brother’s keeper?”
In the past century our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies. The first, which is widely considered “the first genocide of the twentieth century,” struck your own Armenian people, the first Christian nation, as well as Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks. Bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered. The remaining two were perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism. And more recently there have been other mass killings, like those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia. It seems that humanity is incapable of putting a halt to the shedding of innocent blood. It seems that the enthusiasm generated at the end of the Second World War has dissipated and is now disappearing. It seems that the human family has refused to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today too there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand by. We have not yet learned that “war is madness,” “senseless slaughter.”
Dear Armenian Christians, today, with hearts filled with pain but at the same time with great hope in the Risen Lord, we recall the centenary of that tragic event, that immense and senseless slaughter whose cruelty your forebears had to endure. It is necessary, and indeed a duty, to honor their memory, for whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester. Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it!
Pray for our Christian brothers in the Middle East, that perhaps this time, their memory will not fade and the law of terror will be repealed.
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