PORTLAND, ME. – Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilman Pious Ali joined a group of Maine Armenians who gathered at the Armenian Genocide Monument today to commemorate the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The event preceded the release of President Joe Biden’s statement affirming the genocide, a term that no sitting US president had used to describe the World War I-era atrocities since Ronald Reagan.
“I am honored to join the Armenian community in commemorating the Armenian Genocide today,” said Mayor Snyder. “I thank the Armenians who settled in Portland for their long-standing contributions to our city and state,” she added.
The ceremony dedicated to the memory of the 1.5 million Armenian victims of the genocide began with a prayer offered by Fr. Andrew Faust of St. Paul’s Anglican Church. Maine’s Armenian community is one of the oldest in the US. The first immigrants arrived here in the late 19th century to escape growing persecution in Ottoman Turkey. Dozens more would arrive by the time of the Armenian Genocide, many of whom first settled near the site of today’s gathering. Successive waves of new Armenian immigrants and their descendants now make Maine their home.
Gerard Kiladjian, president of the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine, stated, “Portland, Maine welcomed Armenian Genocide surviving families with open arms.” Speaking about the Bayside neighborhood where the monument stands, he said, “This area was the heart and soul of the Armenian community for three generations.”
April 24 holds special significance to Armenians as it is considered the date on which the Armenian Genocide began. On this day in 1915, Turkish authorities started to round up, arrest and deport hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders from Constantinople (now Istanbul), many of whom were later killed. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” in 1944 and was the earliest proponent of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, invoked the Armenian case as a definitive example of genocide.
By the time the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, roughly two-thirds of Armenians living under Turkish rule had been removed from their ancestral homeland by outright killings and massacres, death resulting from starvation, dehydration and/or exhaustion caused by long, forced marches, or, if they survived, exile. Those who managed to escape death settled first in neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Syria, and later migrated to Europe and the Americas.
Judith Saryan, who has been instrumental in translating three books by Zabel Yessayan – the only female author to be targeted during the Armenian Genocide – was invited to make remarks. “We cannot allow a genocidal state to control the narrative about its own crimes. We must insist that history be written by the victims, not the oppressors,” she said.
Although overwhelmingly regarded by scholars as the first modern genocide of the 20th century and affirmed by many countries as such, Turkey remains stubbornly opposed to the term in describing the state-sanctioned cleansing of Armenians from Ottoman Turkey. Even as Turkey denies the Armenian Genocide of over a century ago, it perpetuates a cultural genocide by erasing the remaining traces of Armenian heritage and civilization within history books and its geographic borders. In the fall of 2020, Turkey also aided Azerbaijan in launching a military offensive on the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, known to Armenians as Artsakh, and its 150,000 Armenian inhabitants, signaling, even boasting of, its renewed genocidal intentions.
Ava Gurekian, chairperson of the Portland chapter of the Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief, stated, “This past fall, Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s social, political, and military support violated three different ceasefire agreements and killed thousands of Armenians in Artsakh.” She added, “And for Armenians everywhere, this felt all too familiar, echoing back to our family’s experiences not even so long ago.”
President Biden’s unambiguous use of the term genocide in marking the occasion follows near-unanimous Congressional re-affirmation in 2019 and recognition by 49 US states, including Maine. The White House’s move is a clear break from the policies of previous administrations that aimed to appease Turkey – a US NATO ally – forsaking truth, justice and human rights. Most understand that this move, while meaningful, is but one step toward the justice, security and future owed the Armenian nation as they face an existential threat from Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The event was jointly presented in collaborative partnership by the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine, Armenian Assembly of America, Armenian National Committee of Maine and Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief – Portland Chapter. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the in-person gathering was small, but the event was streamed live on Facebook.