WASHINGTON, DC –The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) joined with Eastern and Western US leaders of the Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America and In Defense of Christians last week on Capitol Hill to focus on the plight of Christians in the Middle East that coincided with the US State Department’s Second Annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
“As Armenian Americans, we were proud to bring our contribution to last week’s religious freedom initiatives in Washington, DC – including through the lessons that can and must be drawn from our own Armenian experience in surviving genocide and challenging Turkey’s ongoing denials and obstruction of justice for this crime,” noted ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian, who was invited to the Ministerial. “It’s clear that we diminish U.S. credibility – profoundly undermining American global leadership on core atrocities prevention and religious freedom priorities – when, under heavy-handed public pressure, we grant a foreign power a high-profile veto over what the US government can and cannot say about a known case of genocide. Turkey’s undemocratic and openly anti-American leaders revel in the public spectacle of having bullied and bribed the US into silence over its sins for more than a century. It’s time to end Turkey’s gag-rule against honest American remembrance of the WWI-era genocide and exile of Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, Aramean, Maronite and other Christian nations.”
His Eminence Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Eastern U.S., initiated the week-long spotlight by delivering the opening prayer at the US House of Representatives session on Monday, July 15 at the invitation of Armenian American Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) and US House Chaplain Patrick Conroy. “Heavenly Father, your children gathered here in this sanctuary of democracy and freedom thank thee for your providential care, full of visible and invisible blessings,” prayed Archbishop Tanielian. “Grant your wisdom and love upon the members of this assembly to follow thy will and fulfill their awesome responsibility toward the land of the free and the world at large.”
Following the prayer, Archbishop Tanielian, Hamparian and Chaplain Conroy reminisced about the Chaplain’s inspirational 2012 trip to Armenia and visit to Etchmiadzin. Later, Archbishop Tanielian was greeted by the ANCA Leo Sarkisian interns, who were in the House gallery to witness the prayer.
Ecumenical Prayer Service in the Rotunda in the Christian Languages of the Middle East
Later that day, the ANCA joined members of Congress and clergy including Archbishop Tanielian, His Eminence Moushegh Mardirossian—Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of the Western US—and Christian leaders from the Antiochian Orthodox Church, Assyrian Church of the East, Evangelical Protestant tradition, Greek Orthodox Church, Mainline Protestant tradition, Maronite Catholic Church and Roman Catholic Church for a press conference and first-ever prayer service in the US Capitol by Middle Eastern Christians.
Organized by In Defense of Christians, press conference and prayer service speakers stressed the importance of a commitment to truth and decisive action to ensure religious freedom for all, including Christians and other persecuted minorities of the Middle East.
“The right to worship must be protected throughout the globe,” explained House International Religious Freedom Caucus co-chair Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) in his opening remarks. Rep. Bilirakis, who also serves as co-chair of the Congressional Armenian Caucus, noted the difficult plight of the Greek community and other Christians in Turkey. “There are only approximately 1,200 Greek Orthodox Christians left in Constantinople (and it will always be Constantinople to me) … a place where the Turkish government refuses to recognize the ecumenical nature of Patriarch Bartholomew,” said Rep. Bilirakis, who noted that Halki’s theological school has been closed down by the Turkish government since 1971.
During her formal remarks, Congressional Armenian Caucus co-chair Speier thanked all clergy present “for reminding us that every day we should be spending our waking moments thinking about those who don’t have the privilege of practicing their Christian faith in public.” “I am of Armenian descent,” she continued. “One and a half million Armenians in the early 1900s were killed because of their religion. We see the potential of that happening even now.”
Rep. Ann Eshoo (D-CA) explained that the work of In Defense of Christians and efforts for international religious tolerance are very personal to her. “There is representation here from my father’s side of the family – the Assyrians and Chaldeans – and my mother’s side – the Armenians. I am first-generation American. I would not be a member of Congress unless they were able to flee and survive. And so, I see and have seen history repeating itself. It is a repeat of what they endured, of the family that they lost, and we need to always learn and have the lessons of history speak to us.” Rep. Eshoo noted the historic Congressional vote characterizing the attacks on Christians and other minorities in the Middle East as ‘genocide,’ but noted that success has been elusive given the great need and the slow U.S. response over multiple U.S. administrations.
Other members of Congress offering remarks included Representatives Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Ron Estes (R-KS), Glenn Grothman (R-WI), Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), French Hill (R-AR), Mike Johnson (R-LA), David Schweikert (R-AZ) and Randy Weber (R-TX).
In regards to US policy on the Armenian Genocide, Hamparian explained, “When we can get the US on the right side of the Armenian Genocide issue, certainly it’s going to be good for Armenians because denial will be challenged, but more importantly, it will be a tipping point in US policy where we finally say that fighting against a genocide against any people – Armenians, Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur or the Holocaust – is a moral imperative and not a political commodity.”
Christian leaders offered prayers in the English following the traditions of their various faiths and then proceeded to the Rotunda of the US Capitol to offer prayers in their native languages of Arabic, Aramaic, Assyrian, Greek, Syriac and Armenian. The historic presentation of hymns included a moving rendition of Der Voghormia (Lord Have Mercy) sung by Archbishop Mardirossian, Archbishop Tanielian, Very Rev. Fr. Sahag Yemishian, Vicar of the Eastern Prelacy, Rev. Fr. Sarkis Aktavoukian, pastor of Soorp Khatch Armenian Church of Bethesda, MD, and Archpriest Fr. Nerses Manoogian, pastor of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church of Philadelphia, Penn
State Department’s Religious Freedom Ministerial Largest in History
Later in the week, the ANCA took part in the State Department’s Second Annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, joining over 1,000 civil society and religious leaders and more than 80 foreign delegations. Hamparian participated in sessions outlining successes from the first Ministerial in 2018, including funding for emergency assistance to victims of religiously motivated discrimination and abuse around the world. Participants agreed that much more needed to be done to address growing religious intolerance worldwide.
During the conference, Armenia Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan highlighted the country’s commitment to religious tolerance, noting that in the face of recurring violence against the Yezidis and Christians in the Middle East, Armenia has served as a safe-haven for over 20,000 refugees. “Armenia stands ready to cooperate with all interested parties to recover ancestral presence of Christians in the Middle East by rebuilding their lives, communities and churches,” stated Mnatsakanyan. “The Armenian people historically have been significant contributors to diversity, harmony and prosperity of the countries and societies of the Middle East. This conference provides an excellent platform to initiate partnerships to this end.”