Armenians urged to turn centennial into a watershed – Irish Times

Armenia will today mark a century since the start of an Ottoman campaign of massacres and deportation that killed up to 1.5 million Armenians, amid Turkish anger at growing international recognition of the events as genocide.

Several heads of state are expected to attend a memorial in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, a day after an extraordinary religious ceremony and a raucous rock concert launched a commemoration that has brought thousands of ethnic-Armenians back to their ancestral homeland.

Bells tolled at Armenian Orthodox churches across the country and around the world last night, as victims of the genocide were collectively made saints at what is thought to be the biggest canonisation ceremony in history. Church officials said Muslim Ottomans had slaughtered Armenians partly because of their faith.

As the service began at Etchmiadzin, the most important Armenian Orthodox cathedral, thousands of people were massing in central Yerevan for a free concert by American-Armenian rock group System of a Down, whose members regularly call on Turkey and other states to recognise the genocide.

The 1915-1922 massacres drove Armenians from what is now eastern Turkey deep into the Middle East, and ultimately scattered the nation around the world. Thousands of descendants of Armenians forced into exile by the genocide have returned to the country to mark the centennial, highlighting the major role the diaspora has long played in a country blighted by poverty and isolation.

Earlier this month, Armenian-American celebrity Kim Kardashian visited Armenia with musician husband Kanye West, and helped put the country in the international spotlight ahead of the genocide centennial.

“Lots of people were sceptical about their visit. But in fact it gave many Armenians a sense of being part of world, of breaking out of isolation,” said Maria Titizian, managing editor of Armenian news website CivilNet.

Titizian, who moved to Armenia from Toronto 15 years ago, said the diaspora’s “identity as Armenians is completely wrapped around the genocide, because that is why we ended up where we ended up.”

“For many it was always a question of why was I born in Beirut, or why are my parents from Aleppo. My family history starts in 1915, everything before was obliterated, and my grandparents were orphans. Genocide is a huge part of our lives – it is the national obsession.”

Poverty line

About one-third of Armenia’s population – officially three million but closer to two million, according to independent experts – lives under the poverty line, and the nation relies heavily on remittances sent by Armenians working abroad.

While the vast majority of remittances now come from Armenians living in Russia, many working in relatively low-paid jobs, the more wealthy western diaspora has long had more political influence in Armenia – and a particular focus on the genocide and continuing frosty relations with Turkey.

“There is frustration that the diaspora has a one-issue identity: it’s all about the genocide,” said Richard Giragosian, the US-born, ethnic-Armenian founding director of Yerevan’s Regional Studies Center, who moved to Armenia nine years ago.

“In some ways, the genocide centennial is their stage. A lot of things have been delegated to them, to keep them busy. Ordinary Armenians think it’s nice that they’re here, but they are also waiting for them to go home. They sometimes look at Armenia like Disneyland – they say it’s a lovely country and go home, without sharing some of the pain.”

Endemic corruption

The “pain” is considerable for a country that suffers grinding poverty and endemic corruption, and is locked in a frozen conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region with neighbouring Azerbaijan, which, with ally Turkey, has closed its border with Armenia.

Titizian said Armenia’s “history is not history – it follows us like a shadow” – but urged the diaspora to help make the genocide centennial a “watershed”.

“We need to walk with our backs straighter. I’m tired of being a victim,” she said. “The message to the diaspora is this: stop with the insularity and ghetto mentality. If Armenia can’t prosper and become a real democracy, and protect human rights and its own borders, then how long is it going to exist?”

After Pope Francis and the European Parliament recently called the Ottoman massacres “genocide”, Germany is expected to do the same today.