Armenian massacre remembered at Michigan service – USA TODAY

DETROIT — More than 1,000 people jammed into a Michigan church Friday night to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacre, calling for justice and recognition of the mass killings that began in 1915.

“I have a choked feeling in my heart,” said Lara Nercessian of Royal Oak, inside St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Livonia, a Detroit suburb. “This isn’t an Armenian issue. This is a humanitarian issue. If you deny one genocide, you will deny another genocide.”

President Obama, like previous U.S. presidents, once again refused to call the mass killings of Armenians “genocide,” instead calling it this week an “atrocity.”

But at the Livonia church, members were united in calling the deaths a genocide. Entering the church, people were given pins shaped like purple forget-me-not flowers to remind them to never forget what happened. On April 24, 1915, more than 200 intellectuals and leaders were arrested by Turkish authorities. They were later killed, part of the wave of deaths that would go on until 1923.

The Turkish government acknowledges that many Armenians died 100 years ago but says it was part of the general violence suffered by Armenians and Turks near the end of the Ottoman Empire.

“It’s important for us as succeeding generations for us to never forget,” said John Zadikian, of Dearborn Heights. “We have to remember so this never happens again to anyone, to any ethnic or religious group.”

Armenian Christians said that history is repeating itself now in the Middle East, where minority groups such as Christians and Yazidis are facing persecution from extremist groups such as Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

“With what’s happening in the Middle East with ISIS, you’re basically seeing the same thing happening 100 years later. If that continues, if they are not held in check,” there will be more genocides, Zadikian said. “Religious persecution of any kind is just not acceptable.”

The church was so packed that an overflow room with a video feed was set up in the basement, but many were left outside because it was too crowded to get into the church. Catholic Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron delivered the main talk at the ecumenical service.

Vigneron, the spiritual leader of 1.3 million Catholics in metro Detroit, said to the crowd: “We are appalled by the terrible violence done to the Armenian people,” who were brought to the “brink of annihilation.”

Vigneron asked people “to make a prayer tonight” for the victims of the Armenian massacre.

He linked the massacre to problems today facing religious minorities in the Middle East.

“Protect the religious liberty of Christians … not only Christians, but believers of every belief.”

Raffi Ourlian of Livonia, said he was glad to see both the Michigan state House and Senate pass resolutions this week declaring the Armenian killings a genocide and remembering the 100th anniversary.

Shant Jamgotchian of West Blooomfield, was there to remember the victims, who are considered martyrs by Armenians.

“The martyrs are our strength,” he said.

Like others at Friday’s memorial, Jamgotchian’s grandparents were survivors of the massacre. He noted that the Armenian atrocity led to the deaths of 1.5 million people and the near destruction of the Armenian presence in Turkey, where they had lived for hundreds of years, long before Turkish Muslims invaded their land. Thousands of Armenian churches, homes, and properties were destroyed in the massacre, and today, the Armenian presence in Turkey is negligible compared with the 2 million who lived there before the massacre.

On Friday, photos of the Armenian churches in Turkey were projected onto the church outside.

“It’s up to the rest of us to tell the story,” Zadikian said.

Dressed in black, Nercessian said: “There’s an emptiness in my heart today.”