On a windswept evening, Armenian-Americans solemnly rang a bell 100 times outside St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Granite City Friday night to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in the Middle East.
Armenians across the world on Friday held ceremonies to honor the 1.5 million victims who died at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government beginning on April 24, 1915. The Turkish government has never recognized the killings as a “genocide” and that has angered Armenians for decades.
“We need to continue our struggle and demand justice from the international community, and particularly from Turkey,” said Father Torkom Chorbajian, who is the pastor of St. Gregory.
“This will be the basis of reconciliation between the Armenian and Turkish people.”
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Chorbajian, who is leading his first congregation and recently moved to Granite City from Lebanon, believes the Turkish government will one day recognize the killings as a genocide.
U.S. presidents, with the exception of President Ronald Reagan, also have not characterized the Christian Armenian deaths as a genocide.
As a U.S. senator and candidate for president, President Barack Obama described the killings of Armenians as “genocide” and said the U.S. government had a responsibility to recognize them as such, The Associated Press reported Friday. As president, Obama has shied away from the term, mainly out of deference to Turkey.
Turkey, a key U.S. partner and NATO ally, fiercely opposes the “genocide” label, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest, according to the AP.
Zabelle Vartanian, 74, of Belleville is “very disappointed” with Obama for not calling what happened to Armenians a genocide.
“It’s like saying our ancestors are lying,” Vartanian said. “How can you say it’s a lie? I don’t have grandparents because of this.” She said her father had immigrated to the United States before the genocide began but his entire family died in the genocide.
Paul Nersesian, 53, of Swansea said it’s important to recognize the Armenians’ plight as a genocide because that’s a step toward preventing genocide from occurring again. His father survived the onslaught but he lost grandparents, an aunt, uncle and an untold number of other family members.
On Thursday, church leaders in Armenia declared all of the genocide victims as saints.
“To me, that was the greatest honor that could be bestowed upon them because what they went through and the stories we have heard and the horrors that they experienced are beyond one’s imagination,” Vartanian said.
Chorbajian said along with mass killings, Armenians lost their ancestral lands, churches and homes.
“When I think of today, I think of my grandparents and all of the other folks like them, some of whom made it and some of whom didn’t and that we needed to honor their memory and make sure the world does not forget,” said Lisa Bedian, of St. Charles, Mo.
Bedian said her grandmother was 8 years old when Turks came to her village in 1915 and killed most of her family. Bedian’s grandmother and her younger sister were able to survive a forced march into the desert.
Vartanian said Armenians ended up in metro-east to get jobs in factories and mills in the community. She said her mother always ended her visits by saying how grateful she was to the United States for allowing Armenians to find a safe haven here.
The original St. Gregory bell was set up outside the church at 1014 Pontoon Road for the ceremony. The church invited people to ring the bell in honor of their ancestors who either died in the genocide or survived it.