This past Friday evening, April 24, I was privileged to join representatives of different Christian communities from southeastern Wisconsin. We gathered at the parish church of St. Mesrob Apostolic Armenian community on the north side of Racine.
The occasion was a solemn centennial commemoration of the tragic violence against countless Armenians living in Turkey during the early years of the 20th century. Because they were neither wanted nor welcome in their host nation, the Armenians were systematically killed in a sudden surge of violence.
The sad facts of that history now seem clearly undebatable, namely, one and a half million Armenians and another million Syrian and Greek Christians were killed by Turkish forces during the brief period of 1915-16.
Unfortunately, the brutal European battles of what became World War I distracted the attention of the world, and very few voices were raised in protest. Moreover, that apparent disinterest of so many nations tragically set the stage for an even worse human horror, namely the killing of more than six million Jewish people by Nazi troops hardly 25 years later.
The renowned German historian, Michael Hessemann, however, was recently quoted in Zenit News Service, “Even Pope Benedict XV, who was a very careful diplomat, stressing neutrality whenever he could, could not remain silent and protested three times, two times in personal letters to the Sultan, and one time during his speech in a consistory. Indeed his attempt to stop the Armenian genocide by public protests is one of the most impressive examples in history of how the Vatican’s diplomacy tried everything humanly possible to stand up for those persecuted brothers and sisters and save innocent victims of one of the biggest crimes in history.”
Modern Turkish government officials recently apologized for those terrible events, but have absolutely refused to label the actions a “genocide.” When Pope Francis resolutely used the term, however, in speaking to a group of Armenian bishops who gathered in Rome earlier this month, the Turkish government reacted in anger and recalled their ambassador to the Holy See. The Holy Father did not back down.
The Armenian catastrophe, though admittedly smaller in number than its subsequent anti-Semitic outrage, however, still goes relatively unnoticed.
Similarly, the more recent bloodbaths in Africa are reported but quickly forgotten and lost amid the rush of other world news, earthquakes and endless spirals of human violence.
Ironically, we pray for peace, but the specifics are often left to be filled into the blank spaces of the prayer, for, unfortunately, the petition is always relevant. God help our murderous human hearts. The mark of Cain (Gen 4:15) seems writ large upon every nation’s brow.
The current terror is ISIS, yet another tragic stain on our human history … now viciously brutal murder in the name of a twisted “religious” perspective.
The past cannot be wiped off the slate of human history, but it can be labeled for what it was/is, and words of genuinely honest and deep regret can be offered by later wiser generations.
In Lent of the Great Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presided over a remarkable and powerful prayer service in St. Peter’s which listed the serious sins of the Catholic Church against various Protestant, Jewish and Muslim groups over the centuries.
In the name of the whole church they begged pardon. It was an expression of what John Paul II often called a “purification of memories.” The past cannot be undone nor should it be forgotten, whatever its reasoning, but humble acknowledgement of the truth can lay the foundation for the forgiveness necessary for a new beginning.
At St. Mesrob, we gathered in sober prayer. Episcopal Bishop Steven A. Miller spoke words of condolence as we all prayed amid a packed church for a new dawn of human tolerance and peace. For the moral and spiritual health of humanity, some sorrows should never be forgotten.
It was my honor and privilege to represent all of you at that evening prayer with our Armenian friends and neighbors.