As the late afternoon sun enveloped Etchmiadzin in a soft glow, the sounds of ringing bells and hymns filled the air. In the shadow of Mount Ararat, thousands of Armenians from around the world gathered outside the world’s oldest cathedral to witness the sacred rite of canonization for the first time in more than four centuries.
The historic ceremony began with a solemn procession through the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, upon whose soil one hundred years ago, thousands of Armenian refugees found sanctuary after fleeing the massacres of the Ottoman Empire. From the open air Altar of St. Trdat, adorned in ornate purple robes, Catholicos Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians, spoke of bringing “a life-giving new breath” and “weaving the crown of a spiritual rebirth” as he collectively elevated into sainthood the approximately 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide who died for their faith and homeland. “The memory of our holy martyrs will heretofore not be a requiem prayer of victimhood and dormition,” he proclaimed, “rather a victorious song of praise by incorporeal soldiers, triumphant and sanctified by the blood of martyrdom.”
For Armenians the world over, it was a unique moment in history, marked by profound meaning and change. The landmark service also represented a great moment of unity. For with the assistance of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, the canonization of the Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide was broadcast throughout the nation and streamed live to Armenian churches around the globe, uniting millions of Armenians worldwide through the common bond of their Christian faith. His Holiness Karekin II referred to that shared belief as the means by which Armenians maintained a strong national identity. It is through “devotion to Christ and love of patrimony that our people have re-created their spiritual and national life in all corners of the world, found rebirth in Eastern Armenia, under the canopy of their state, which has risen from the ashes,” he declared.
His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the House of Cilicia, who also officiated the service, reflected on the painful past, but also urged Armenians to embrace the future. “This moment calls us not only to look backward by remembering our martyrs,” he declared, “but also to look forward by reaffirming our commitment to carry on, with renewed vigor and sense of responsibility, the cause of our martyrs. Indeed, the cause of the martyrs is a cause of justice and human dignity. We do believe that truth must be accepted and the human rights of our people restored. Only the acceptance of the truth will lead to reconciliation.”
Considered the largest canonization service in history, it was attended by Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and other high-ranking dignitaries and ecumenical guests. Along with the pontiffs, twelve bishops and archbishops of the Armenian Apostolic Church participated in the ceremonial rite. The two-hour-long ceremony was steeped in ancient religious tradition and saintly reference, incorporating fourteen Holy Relics of the Armenian Church. These included the Holy Lance or ‘Geghard,’ the Right Hand of St. Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia’s patron saint, and the Relic of the True Cross.
The rite of canonization concluded at 19:15—a time specifically chosen to symbolize the year the Armenian Genocide began—with a blessing before the church bells tolled 100 times to mark the passing of a century. In a gesture of solidarity with Armenia, church bells rang out simultaneously in cities around the world including New York, Moscow, Strasbourg, Madrid, Venice, Berlin and the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, followed by a minute of silence. From that moment in history onward, Armenians the world over would no longer pray for all the victims of the Armenian Genocide, but pray to them.