Clergymen Lost During the Genocide Remembered at Prelacy Forum

Students of Youth Bible Study of Providence present stirring tribute

NEW YORK—There was not a dry eye among the more than one hundred attendees on Thurs., April 16, at the headquarters of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America in New York. The special evening was a moving memorial to the more than 5,000 Armenian clergymen who were martyred during the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians, and the Stalin pogroms.

Entitled “Remembering the Forgotten: The Untold Story of Clergymen Lost to the Genocide,” the emotional event was part of the Prelacy’s Quarterly Forum Series, under the auspices of Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy. It featured a powerful presentation by Yeretzgin Joanna Baghsarian and the Youth Bible Study students of Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Church in Providence, R.I.

As the lights dimmed, a solemn processional began with the students, each holding a photo of a martyred priest, marching to the sorrowful chant “Ktader” (Have Compassion O Lord) in single file to a table holding a large cross, and placing the photos before 13 votive candles.

Yeretzgin Joanna, in heartfelt remarks, related how 5,000 Armenian religious figures lost their lives in the genocide and the purges of the Stalin era. Between 1915 and 1939, nearly 5,000 out of 6,000 clergymen serving nearly 3 million Armenians worldwide—90 percent of Armenian clergymen—were lost. Presently, she noted, there are only 800 clergymen serving nearly 10 million Armenians worldwide. “Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, and Protestant religious leaders were killed in ways that were inhumane and unimaginable,” she said, detailing the horrors.

“Many were skinned alive. Fingernails and teeth were extracted. Extremities and heads were severed from their bodies. They were burned alive. They were buried alive. Eyes were gouged. Hair and beards were cut off and used as brooms. Many were nailed to church doors. Those who were shot to death were considered the most fortunate,” she related to gasps and audible sobs from the audience. Along with the destruction of human life and deportation, books and vital records were also destroyed or lost.

Yeretzgin explained that there had been extensive research done for this project by several individuals, including scholar and historian Dr. George Leylegian; George Aghjayan, a collector of rare Armenian historical books; and Zabel Postian, who found the book, Golgotha of Armenian Clergy, written by the renowned teacher, journalist writer, and documenter Teotig.

Yeretzgin Joanna revealed that Teotig had found bags and bags of invaluable documents thrown into a corner of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul. The bags contained census questionnaires that the Patriarchate had sent to all of the Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire. The volumes had escaped destruction by the Ottoman Turks and were published in May 1921. The fourth book, however, remained unfinished due to Teotig’s death. As a result, there is little, if any, information about Adana, Beirut, Der Zor, and the Baghdad refugee camps.

“Today, the Sts. Vartanantz Youth Bible Study students will remember the forgotten,” said Yeretzgin. Reminding those in attendance that Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia has proclaimed 2009 as the “Year of the Youth,” she said that Armenian youth worldwide “are a living example, a testament bearing witness to the faith of our forefathers who did not die in vain.”

“Follow our youth as they take you on the road to the cross—khachi jampan. There you will meet face to face with—and learn about the final moments of—13 of these 5,000 valiant men of God who were transferred to a place beyond the grave 94 years ago.”

One by one, the students silently took a photo, and then detailed the heart-rending stories of these faithful and courageous leaders. The students included Alex Bagdasarian, Melissa Colangelo, Alek Comella, Ani Dairbi, Anna-Marie Danayan, Dalita Getzoyan, Lena Minassian, Alysha Phillips, Talen Sarkisian, Talene Taraksian, Garo Tashian, Levon Zobian, and Sevan Zobian.

Among the 13 martyrs featured was the legendary Gomidas Vartabed, who spent the last 20 years of his life as a “living corpse” in a French asylum, and Der Arshavir Kahana Choloyan, the grandfather of Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan who was nailed to the door of his church.

An inspiring musical interlude was shared by student Dalita Getzoyan who sang the touching chant “Nor Tzaghig.” She then began the lighting of the vigil candles to the soulful “Der Voghormia” (Rest in Peace) by Gomidas. The flame was passed from student to student as each lit a votive candle before the images of the martyred clergymen.

Closing the inspiring evening, the Prelate, with obvious emotion, shared his feelings. “My heart is so heavy. We traveled to 1915 when our grandparents and one and a half million Armenians and clergy gave their lives. It was an incomparable loss. We lost so much for our survival. The genocide did not bring our end. These men did not die in vain. They killed our body, but not our spirit and our faith.”

“The strong message is that we must abide by our faith, defend and practice our values and our identity,” the Prelate continued. “If we live like this, we will always be victorious. Tonight I learned how to join my soul with those of our martyrs. Our church will always be a living light in our lives.”

During the reception, copies of the newly published book, The Great Loss of the Armenian Clergy during the Armenian Genocide by Bishop Papken Tcharian (translated by Tamar Topjian Der-Ohannessian), were distributed by the Prelate to all attendees. The book is available from the Prelacy Bookstore by calling (212) 689-7810.

The Prelacy’s Quarterly Forum series, which began in January 2009, is part of the Prelacy’s mission to incorporate the religious, educational, cultural, and social aspects of the Armenian heritage into the lives of Armenian Americans. Forum No. 3 will take place in September 2009.

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