Spiritual Rebirth

Gratitude, Unity and Remembrance

Historic national cathedral service unites religious faiths in support of Armenia

Inside the cavernous stone walls of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, beneath large stained glass windows etched with the faces of Christian saints, Armenians from around the world once again stood united in a prayer for justice. On the grounds where former US President Woodrow Wilson—who was instrumental in providing aid to Armenian survivors a century ago—lies buried, more than two thousand people joined Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, pontiffs of the Armenian Apostolic Church, US Vice President Joe Biden, diplomats, senators and members of Congress for an ecumenical service to remember the nearly 1.5 million martyrs of the Armenian Genocide.

From the moment the procession entered the cathedral, it was clear this commemoration would be different. For among the sea of members of the Armenian clergy and community at large, a wave of ornate and brightly colored robes and hats stood out, belonging to dozens of leaders of different religious faiths—including Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim—who had all joined in solidarity to offer their spiritual support for Armenia. “Worshippers of all faiths long for a world of tolerance and devoid of hate and violence,” said Noubar Afeyan, AGBU Central Board member and Chair of the National Commemoration for the Armenian Genocide Centennial Steering Committee that organized the multi-denominational service in conjunction with the Diocese and Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Churches of America.  

In that same Wilsonian spirit of moral leadership and international activism, His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, emphasized the collective need for nations to work together to forge a more peaceful future. “We seek to inspire a change of spirit in people—the awakening of the heart that will influence future generations. The events in Washington are a testament to our strength, 100 years after the Genocide, as we join together to promote peace, honor those lost, and protect those at risk around the world no matter the race, religion or ethnicity.”

Among the spiritual, political and community leaders in attendance, in many instances three generations of the same family—grandparents, their children and their grandchildren—sat together united in prayers dedicated to the sainted Martyrs and listened to a performance of traditional Armenian hymns, or “sharagans.” His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, who also presided over the prayer service, reminded those gathered of the dangers of complacency and need to remain vigilant. “Genocide can happen anywhere, at any time; there is no generation, religion or ethnic group that is immune—history has shown this,” he declared. “What happened in 1915 to the Armenian people whether we call it tragedy for geopolitical reasons or massacres, it is genocide by its very intent and means.” In the face of such crimes against humanity he added, “silence is the continuation of genocide.” 

The pointed remark drew resounding applause from the audience, some of whom may have resented the fact that US Vice-President Joe Biden, who attended the service alongside US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, had refused to address the audience. It was an opportunity many had hoped the US government would seize to at least deliver a message of understanding, compassion and support—while not straying from state policy against formal recognition. However, by insisting on a policy of silence, the US government also let pass yet another chance to acknowledge its own heroic past in providing aid and assistance thousands of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, ensuring those efforts remain a largely forgotten chapter of American history. Instead it was left to President Serzh Sargsyan, who highlighted in his address the crucial role the US government and humanitarian organizations played in the relief efforts in the aftermath of the genocide. “It was truly an honor to address the congregation at the National Cathedral,” said President Sargsyan. “Today’s ecumenical prayer demonstrated a powerful call to unite this community in the spirit of gratitude, justice and peace.”

Indeed the prayers of remembrance and peace were intended to be as much a commemoration as they were a celebration of survival—an opportunity to express gratitude for the regeneration of life brought forth by survivors and their supporters who contributed to the survival of thousands of Armenians a century ago. During the service, those supporters were acknowledged and praised for their human compassion and selfless bravery. 

The interfaith service at the National Cathedral, the sixth largest in the world, was the signature event among several held in the nation’s capital during the weekend of May 7 that brought to a close two weeks of religious ceremonies, memorials, concerts and exhibitions around the world commemorating the centenary of the genocide and raising awareness of the Armenian plight for recognition and justice. 

The following day a special concert entitled “A Journey Through 100 Years of Armenian Music” was performed by the acclaimed Hover Chamber Choir of Armenia along with other renowned musicians at the Strathmore Concert Hall. A Divine Liturgy at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was conducted the following morning on May 9. Finally, a reception and awards banquet in the evening offered an opportunity to honor those who have helped Armenians past and present. Twenty-nine individuals including missionaries, diplomats, lawyers and historians as well as organizations that offered humanitarian assistance or honored the legacy of the genocide through research and recognition were presented with Hero Awards. Among the recipients were representatives of governments that formally recognized the Armenian Genocide, the Near East Foundation, Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue, Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum, the Shoah Foundation, attorney Fethiye Çetin and historian Taner Akçam. “If not for the actions of these men, women, groups and governments, the Armenian community as it is today would not exist,” said Afeyan.

The awards banquet served as a poignant reminder of the extent to which the world cared about Armenians as much in the past as in the present. While they were unable to prevent the genocide and others that followed throughout the past century, the impressive gathering of individuals and diverse humanitarian organizations was a powerful testament to the unifying force Armenians represent in the global struggle to create a more peaceful future. 

Originally published in the 2015-09-01​ issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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AGBU Magazine is of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.