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Genocide is defined as “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” It is a term that has become synonymous with the Hitler’s Germany, and with Rwanda. Often forgotten is the first genocide of the 20th Century – The Armenian Genocide.

Just last week we marked Yom Hashoah which is the Remembrance of the Holocaust. I was honoured to take part in a wonderful prayer service at the Shaar last Thursday as we remembered the struggles and the pain for those who were victims of our world’s most recognized genocide. I really took the day to be an opportunity to remember all who have died at the hands of hatred and systemic annihilation. Although he was ruthless and wicked, Hitler was not the first to attempt to exterminate a whole group of people in the name of hatred of a people. The venomous hatred that Hitler displayed toward Jews had been seen before in leaders who also sought to advance their own cause by destroying the lives of others.

Today is Armenian Martyrs Day or Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day. On this day in 1915 The Ottoman Empire rounded up and imprisoned 250 Armenian intellectuals. This began a systemic effort the eventually lead to the death of over 1.5 million Armenian. They died due to starvation and exhaustion in Death Marches, poisoning, drowning, gassing, and mass burning. Talaat Pasha was the Interior Minister in the Ottoman Empire who was the architect of the Armenian Genocide.

Flag of Armenia

On this day people in tens of thousands of Armenians will visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. There they will remember the atrocities of the past. They will remember the suffering and pain of their people.

Dzidzernagapert Memorial (Yerevan, Armenia)

Sadly, President Obama, today failed to used the word genocide to describe the massacre of the 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. It is a sad fact that Turkey still does not acknowledge the sins of the past. Turkey refuses to acknowledge the genocide and has been critical of any nation that dares to suggest that what Armenians suffered so long ago was genocide. In the interest of good relations, President Obama has taken a softer stand on this issue than Senator Obama did just a few years ago. Jake Tapper of ABC blogged today that Senator Obama was quite critical of previous Administrations on this issue. In 2006 Obama said, “I criticized the secretary of state [Condoleezza Rice] for the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans, after he properly used the term ‘genocide’ to describe Turkey’s slaughter of thousands of Armenians starting in 1915. I shared with Secretary Rice my firmly held conviction that the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”

But we might lay aside what the world leaders are doing, or perhaps, ‘not doing’ and ask ourselves what we are doing. Today provides opportunity for us. Today, Yom Hashoah, and others days of Remembrance give us opportunity to seek to be people who speak up for peace, speak up for victims, and speak up for the truth. The denials of Turkey are in some strange way, another kind of violence against the people of Armenia and the descendents of the genocide. When we fail to acknowledge the sins of the past we are bound to repeat them in our future. When we deny the hurt of another, we deny any opportunity for healing and reconciliation. Let us not forget those who suffer unspeakable violence in the name of hatred of peoples. Let us find a voice to cry out for justice for those who are victims of such violence. And let us act in such a way that we might convict ourselves of any malice we have in our heart toward people who may be different from ourselves. Days like today, are a perfect opportunity to lament our human history of separation and violation and embrace a future hope of the embrace of peoples as God intended.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton Writes:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of the race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrow and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize that we are all one. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun….There are no strangers!… the gate of heaven is everywhere.

As Christians, we believe that God cared enough to become one with us. This incarnational truth means that we must find a way to respect the ‘other.’ Let us look back to that which was with a heart for seeing what we might be if we only have the courage to speak truth and live love.