100 years later: Twin Cities community gathers to remember Armenian massacres

| Anthony Gockowski for The Catholic Spirit | April 23, 2015 | 0 Comments
Father Aren Jebejian, pastor of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Chicago, speaks at the Cathedral of St. Paul during an ecumenical prayer service commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacres April 18, as Archbishop John Nienstedt and Father Erich Rutten (far left) look on.  Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

Father Aren Jebejian, pastor of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Chicago, speaks at the Cathedral of St. Paul during an ecumenical prayer service commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacres April 18, as Archbishop John Nienstedt and Father Erich Rutten (far left) look on. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

It’s been nearly 100 years since, broken in health, nerves shattered, her mind distressed by tragic memories, a 20-year-old Armenian girl arrived at the doorstep of her brother’s Minneapolis home.

Her name was Vartano Karagheusian, and she was a refugee from the Ottoman Empire.

Karagheusian was among many Armenians forced by a band of Turks to walk from her home to Aleppo, Syria. They lived off the land, she said, eating grass and leaves off the side of the road. They walked for four months, and one by one her countrymen dropped along the way. Her mother died in her arms.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune reported her story in 1920.

“We were their slaves,” Karagheusian was reported to have said.

According to the 95-year-old account, Karagheusian escaped from the death march and found work in a Turkish hospital. When the British captured Jerusalem, she disguised herself as a Turkish soldier and crossed British lines. The British sent her to Minneapolis and her brother, whom she had not seen for 12 years.

Armenians who did not survive were remembered April 18 at an ecumenical prayer service at the Cathedral of St. Paul. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Twin Cities’ Armenian Orthodox Church community and the Minnesota Council of Churches jointly hosted the event. Religious leaders included those from Twin Cities Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Orthodox churches.

The prayer service was dedicated to the martyrs of the Armenian massacres and all martyrs of faith. The Armenian Church plans this month to canonize Armenians killed in the genocide “who died for their faith and love of Christ,” Father Tadeos Barseghyan, pastor of St. Sahag Armenian Church in
St. Paul, told The Catholic Spirit.

“It’s important for the religious community to come together as leaders, as people to preach the Gospel, who preach peace in the world, to . . . pray together for the martyrs,” he said.

An ecumenical prayer service for the martyrs of the systematic killings of Armenians a century ago drew people to the Cathedral of St. Paul April 18. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

An ecumenical prayer service for the martyrs of the systematic killings of Armenians a century ago drew people to the Cathedral of St. Paul April 18. Jim Bovin/For The Catholic Spirit

Current parallels

At the prayer service, Archbishop John Nienstedt called the systematic killing of Armenians “a brutal living nightmare” and an “affront against God and human dignity.”

“At the time, Pope Benedict XV and Vatican diplomats, as well as leaders of other Christian communities, tried to rescue the Armenians through diplomacy, humanitarian aid and refugee services,” he said. “But then, as now, international politics wavered, permitting the atrocities to continue and sometimes playing down or otherwise misrepresenting the real events, muffling the cries of so many defenseless brothers and sisters.

“And so today,” he added.

“I am thinking of situations currently for Christians and Yazidis in Syria [and] Iraq, as well as Christians in Egypt, Libya and throughout the Middle East. I am thinking of threats to religious freedom happening in the free world, even here in these United States.”

Father Erich Rutten, chairman of the archdiocese’s Commission on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs, said the prayer service was an opportunity to honor the Armenians who died, but also contextualize current events.

“We also need to keep the memory of this tragedy, as well as others, alive in our world so that such killing does not happen again,” Father Rutten said. “There continue to be great challenges to peace and to religious freedom today.”

Father Barseghyan also said he saw parallels between what happened to the Armenians and attacks on minority religious and cultural groups in the Middle East. He emphasized that the prayer service was for all martyrs, not only the Armenians.

“It’s not about creating a religious conflict or blaming somebody,” he said. “It’s about telling the truth and condemning something that is not right.”

Nuns wave the Armenian flag during an April 12 Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. CNS photo/Cristian Gennari

Nuns wave the Armenian flag during an April 12 Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. CNS photo/Cristian Gennari

Vowing never to forget

Starting in 1915, the Turkish-majority Ottoman government began a forced evacuation of Armenians from the empire, killing an estimated 1.5 million in the process. In one instance, 7,000 Armenians were massacred in a single attack on Cicilia, a stronghold for Armenian Ottomans, by Turkish and Kurdish troops.

According to scholars, political tensions exacerbated by an influx of Muslim refugees from the Balkan Wars into Armenian regions laid the groundwork for the massacres. On April 24, 1915, nearly 250 Armenian intellectuals were moved to holding centers near Ankara and later put to death. They are remembered annually on April 24, a day known as Red Sunday.

Turkish officials threatened survivors such as Karagheusian — who lived the rest of her life in Minneapolis — until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire beginning with the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres August 10, 1920. Earlier that year, Turkish forces sent a circular to the provincial authorities in Washington ordering the forcible conversion to Islam of the escaped Armenians, who were historically Christian. Conversion, it said, was the only way Armenians could obtain “the property which has been confiscated from them.”

At the prayer service in St. Paul, Archbishop Nienstedt said, “We gather today to make sure that we do not forget our Armenian brothers and sisters, whose lives, one hundred years ago, were cut so tragically short.

“We also gather in the hopes that, by remembering them, we can be more vigilant about the importance of protecting religious freedom today,” the archbishop said, “to put an end to such bloodshed, to vow that it will never happen again.”

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