Celebration and Commemoration in Social Isolation

Karekin II delivers his Easter sermon to a sea of empty pews at St. Krikor Lusavorich Cathedral in Armenia (Photo: Facebook)

April marks two of the most important dates in the Armenian calendar in quick succession. If these two dates could not be more antithetical to one another—the former a celebration of the most holy day in Christendom, the latter, the commemortion of the first Genocide in modern history—this year, perhaps ironically, they are being observed in much the same way. 

Two weeks ago, Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II’s voice echoed in the empty halls of St. Krikor Lusavorich Cathedral as he performed the annual Easter mass. He wasn’t speaking to the pews, but to the millions of faithful who had tuned in to the Armenian State TV live broadcast or the multiple online live streams from Armenia and around the world. In a surprising about-face, the Armenian Church agreed to revise a 1700-year-old tradition that even the Soviets had failed to stomp out completely in the name of an even holier cause: public health. 

In sharp contrast to the other Apostolic Church in neighboring Georgia, whose stubborn defiance of government orders may have potentially sealed the fate of thousands, the Armenian Church has been adjusting its age-old customs to the modern-day realities of life in the Silicon Mountain under COVID-19. This transition period hasn’t come easily—both for the faithful and the Church itself—but in an almost-cliche expression of Armenian resilience: they’ve adapted. 

Families watched the service online before playing the traditional egg war with a modern twist: smashing hard boiled eggs onto their iPad screens to determine the winner. Easter dinners were teleconferenced, while neighbors exchanged greetings and wishes from across balconies. 

In a way, Easter and Palm Sunday both served as a prelude for the observance activities for the next most important event in the Armenian calendar: commemorating the 105th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. 

This April 24th, the streets of the Armenian capital leading up to the Dzidzernagapert Memorial are expected to remain empty for the first time since 1965—another tradition that COVID-19 has seemingly succeeded in disrupting where the Soviets failed. But just like with Easter, the tech-savvy Armenian people have apparently found a unique work-around to honor the victims.

According to High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs Zareh Sinanyan, this year’s commemorative events offer all of us a chance to participate equally, whether we live three miles or three thousand miles away from Dzidzernagapert. Rather than the traditional torch-lit march which precedes the main event on the eve of April 24, denizens in Yerevan are asked to join their compatriots across the planet in shutting their lights at 9:00 PM on April 23rd (GMT+4), at which point every church in the country will ring their bells in a solemn chime. 

In place of torches, people are asked to point flashlights from their window in the direction of Dzidzernagapert. A live concert will be broadcast online and national television as well. In lieu of the usual flowers being placed around the eternal flame at the base of the memorial, virtual participation can be assured by texting the names of victims for each family to the number: +374 33191500.

But the most important contribution that the Diaspora can make to the cause of honoring the victims of 1915—raising awareness and demanding justice—remains unchanged. Despite the global pandemic, social isolation, it seems, does not apply to social media.

“I Remember and Demand”


Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. A former correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, his focus is socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia.

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