New York, N.Y. — A sign with a flower outside the cathedral at what has to be one of Manhattan’s busiest intersections, 34th Street and Second Avenue, stands as a subtle reminder of genocide. One wonders how many diplomats on their way to and from the United Nations headquarters, VIPs on their way to or from one of the airports, and daily commuters have passed St. Vartan’s Cathedral this year without noticing the banner outside proclaiming, “Centennial of the Armenian Genocide: 1915 to 2015. United We Stand Against Genocide.” I confess, I had been among the passers-by until I finally stopped in to pray there for the persecuted during the Christmas octave — and before the centennial year was through.
Perhaps the banner would have more impact if it read, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
That’s how Adolf Hitler made his case for invading Poland in 1939 — and seeking to rid the world of Poles.
Even 100 years on, the Armenian Genocide still goes largely unacknowledged throughout the world. As Philadelphia archbishop Charles J. Chaput put it in a speech last spring: “This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Armenians were the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity, in a.d. 301. Starting in 1915, Turkish officials deliberately murdered more than 1 million members of Turkey’s Armenian minority. The ethnic and religious cleansing campaign went on into the 1920s. The victims were men, women, and children. And they were overwhelmingly Christian. Turkey has never acknowledged the genocide. It’s one of the worst unrepented crimes in history.”
Archbishop Chaput went on to say that while “that kind of ugliness may sound impossible in our day,” it would appear to be something we could manage to tolerate again, if you take a look around the world. He was speaking just months before hosting Pope Francis, who has called what is happening to Christians under the sword of ISIS a genocide. By way of a brief tour, Chaput said, “Today we have our own tragedies — from church bombings in Pakistan to the beheadings of Christians in North Africa. More than 70 percent of the world now lives with some form of religious coercion. Tens of thousands of Christians are killed every year for reasons linked to their faith. North Korea has wiped religion out of its culture. China runs a sophisticated security system to interfere with, and control, its religious communities. Islamic countries have a very mixed record. Muslim states range from relative tolerance to repression and forced conversion of religious minorities. And the persecution has grown worse as Islam has radicalized. Sharia law claims to protect religious minorities. In practice, it slowly smothers them.”
I was heartened to see President Obama issue a statement just before Christmas recognizing “brutal atrocities” being committed against innocent Christians in Iraq and Syria. “During this season of Advent,” he said, “Christians in the United States and around the world are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. At this time, those of us fortunate enough to live in countries that honor the birthright of all people to practice their faith freely give thanks for that blessing. Michelle and I are also ever mindful that many of our fellow Christians do not enjoy that right, and hold especially close to our hearts and minds those who have been driven from their ancient homelands by unspeakable violence and persecution.”
The president continued: “In some areas of the Middle East where church bells have rung for centuries on Christmas Day, this year they will be silent; this silence bears tragic witness to the brutal atrocities committed against these communities by ISIL.”
In the weeks preceding Christmas, it was reported that the White House would soon be issuing a statement calling what is happening to Yazidis in Iraq genocide — their plight seemed to capture the West’s attention for a news cycle, when they were being isolated and murdered in the Sinjar Mountains. While applauding that move, an ecumenical coalition urged that the Obama administration include Christians in the designation.
#share#As a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry signed by pastors, scholars, and activists put it: “The Genocide Convention defines genocide as killing and certain other acts ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’ We have extensive files supporting a finding that ISIS’s treatment of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, as well as Yazidis and other vulnerable minorities, meets this definition. They include evidence of ISIS assassinations of Church leaders; mass murders; torture [and] kidnapping for ransom in the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria; [ISIS’s] sexual enslavement and systematic rape of Christian girls and women; its practices of forcible conversions to Islam; its destruction of churches, monasteries, cemeteries, and Christian artifacts; and its theft of lands and wealth from Christian clergy and laity alike.” The letter points to ISIS’s public statements expressing its intention of eliminating Christian communities, and to reports of incidents of beheading, crucifixion, and summary execution of Christians by ISIS in recent months.
In testimony before Congress shortly thereafter, Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus, which has an emergency-aid campaign supporting Church efforts on the ground in the region, urged: “The United States is rightly viewed as the world’s leading defender of vulnerable minorities, and it is critically important that the State Department consider the best available evidence before issuing a statement that would exclude Christians. An official government declaration of genocide is an opportunity to bring America’s religious communities together to pursue the truth, to support victims, and to bear witness to the noble principle of ‘Never Again.’”
The White House could listen to its own ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein. He was in Rome in December and said there that the West “cannot remain silent” about what is happening to Christians, who are in danger of being “wiped out.” Saperstein has the formidable credentials of a Jew who knows what happens when we do remain silent, and of an American with a responsibility to guard and protect religious liberty at home and abroad.
President Obama, not for the first time, said something beautiful about religious freedom. Acknowledging the fact of genocide against Christians in the world today would give his words some teeth and demonstrate that we do, in fact, learn from history and that “Never again” means something to people facing extermination in the cradle of Christianity today.