Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, on what comes next after US House recognizes Armenians’ “legitimate claim” of genocide.
Interview by Jayson Casper in BeirutNovember 1, 2019 – www.christianitytoday.com
Image: Associated Press
The Armenian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world. According to tradition, Armenia was evangelized by Jesus’ disciples Bartholomew and Thaddeus. In 301 A.D., it became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion.
An Oriental Orthodox denomination, the Armenians are in communion with the Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian, and Malankara (India) churches. They differ with Catholics and Protestants over the 451 A.D. Council of Chalcedon decision to recognize Christ as one person with two natures: human and divine. Oriental Orthodox Christians declare Christ has one nature, both human and divine.
The Armenian Church is governed by two patriarchs, entitled Catholicos. One, Karekin II, is Supreme Patriarch for all Armenians and sits in Armenia.
CT interviewed Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, which was once located in modern-day Turkey but since the Armenian Genocide relocated to Antelias, Lebanon, five miles north of Beirut. His jurisdiction includes the Armenians of the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America.
Aram I discussed the genocide, the US House of Representatives resolution this week to finally recognize it, and Armenians’ desired response from Turkey.
How do you respond to the US resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide?
Yesterday I made a statement welcoming warmly this action taken. I believe it is very much in line with the firm commitment of the United States of America in respect to human rights. The rights of the Armenian people are being violated. After more than 100 years, we tried to bring the attention of the international community that the Armenian Genocide is a fact of history.
Whether we call it genocide or massacre or deportation, the intention is important. The intention of the Ottoman Turkish government at the time was to destroy [and] eliminate the Armenian people for political reasons. The presence of Armenian people in the western part of present-day Turkey and [historic] Cilicia was an obstacle to their project of pan-Turkism.
This is our legitimate claim: that the international community make a visible, tangible manifestation of their concern in respect to human rights, and recognize the Armenian Genocide. It was carefully planned and systematically executed by the government at the time.
Our people all around the world warmly greeted this action of the House of Representatives. It is our firm expectation that the Senate will reaffirm their decision.
To what degree are you responsible for the Armenian genocide file in your church?
I am not the only person, but I am on the forefront—a dedicated spiritual soldier of this combat, for the restoration of our human rights. This center is a victim of the genocide. My predecessor was in Cilicia, in Sis, present-day Kozan [in Turkey’s Adana province]. The Catholicosate [the Great House of Cilicia, now in Lebanon] was there for centuries. With his bishops, he was forced to leave.
The very existence of the diaspora is due to the genocide. It is an imposed reality. You saw the chapel, the relics of the genocide: Did they come from heaven? We didn’t decide to come here; the circumstances forced us.
The pursuit of our rights has been one of the top priorities in our agenda. The human rights issues are part of the mission of any church. We want to help our people continue this struggle.
For the first time, we took a legal action against Turkey. We filed a case demanding the return of our Catholicosate in Cilicia. Let’s see what will happen. What we are doing is the restoration of historical truth. Turkey has through illegal ways questioned our claim, but the historical reality and evidence is there. No one can deny that.
If Turkey really wants to establish contacts with the Armenian people and open a narrow window of opportunity to turn that page, if they have a good will, this case is their chance. So far, their reaction is negative.
What would the restoration of your legitimate rights include? How is the injustice of 100 years made correct today?
We may get different answers to that question. We must make a distinction between rhetoric and concrete reality. We should not be emotional.
The first step could be the return of the Catholicosate and the churches, monasteries, and community properties. We can limit our expectations to within the church. In politics, we have to be down to earth. Any package deal might not lead us in the right direction. We have to move step by step.
If Turkey shows “a good will,” what are the different visions of a second step?
I don’t want to anticipate anything. Nobody knows what will happen. Some of these churches have been converted into restaurants or mosques. In the last 100 years, some have been totally destroyed, some partially destroyed. But the Catholicosate can be a first step, as it has a profound symbolism—spiritual, national, and to a certain extent political. But it should not be mixed up with politics. For us, the church is the people. It is not just a piece of land.
The creation of good will is very important in international relations. But the American resolution comes at a moment of profound “bad will” between the US and Turkey. Does the resolution threaten to damage the good will necessary to restore Armenian rights, since only Turkey can grant them?
Let me answer your question in a different way. America acts according to two principles: geopolitical interests, and human rights values. Sometimes—very often—you see contradiction between the two. I understand that reconciling them is not easy.
The United States has established relations with Turkey, with Saudi Arabia. This is reality. But the role of the church is always to remind and challenge the state authority to give serious consideration to human rights values—to go beyond the narrow geopolitical interests of a country.
How does the church’s spiritual role for forgiveness and reconciliation apply in the issue between Armenians and the Turks?
Forgiveness is an essential element of our Christian faith. But forgiveness comes when there is confession. The Armenian church said, ‘We may forgive one day, but we will never forget.’
The church has a prophetic role to play. It must take a clear stand. I don’t believe in easy forgiveness, or easy reconciliation. Easy forgiveness may lead us in a wrong direction. The church must have the guts to say “no”; not always “yes” [and] not always “we forgive.”
The church’s role is one of reconciliation, but it is the result of a long process that implies accepting the truth and practicing justice. There is no real, lasting, permanent peace without justice—without accepting the truth.
The Turkish denial for 100 years of the genocide committed by their forefathers created an image of “enemy” with the Armenian people. We have a problem, and that problem is solved by the people and state accepting there was a crime committed. This is our legitimate claim.
In every “battle,” there are often others working behind the scenes to facilitate an eventual peace, even while the fight is going on. Is the Armenian church also involved in spiritual outreach to soften the hearts of the Turkish people or government, as the legal battle for rights is being waged?
The atmosphere in Turkey needs to be changed, and I see certain emerging positive signs. Some intellectuals have started referring to the genocides, using that word. And more than a million Turks have started saying openly that they have Armenian origins, and were forcefully converted to Islam. This is a new reality. They are born as Turks, but have identified their roots as Armenians. We have not yet discussed this issue—Muslim Armenians? [Laughs]. This is a new phenomenon.
I hope these signs increase day-by-day, and the people will come to realize that something very bad has happened against the Armenians. Erdogan, from time to time, refers to that. I hope he goes further, and says it was a crime, carefully planned and executed by the government at the time.
On the level of states, reconciliation is easier. They tried to open borders and start diplomatic and economic relations without mentioning genocide. But on the level of nations [peoples], I think it is very difficult.
The genocide is deeply rooted in our common consciousness. You cannot uproot it. You cannot solve this problem around the table, by coming to dialogue. The atmosphere must change.
Five years ago, I invited the first Turkish intellectual to write a book on the Armenian Genocide to come here. I told him, “My predecessors will anathematize me if they see from heaven that a Turk has come here. But they will see you in a different way.”
My telephone rang: It was my father, who heard I had invited a Turk to come here. When he gets angry, he starts talking in Turkish, because he was born in Turkey. He started criticizing Turkey with harsh words, and the author was sitting next to me.
“How have you accepted a Turk here in our church?” he said.
I said to the author, “I’m sorry for this.”
He said, “No, this is the old generation, how they react.”
I told the author, “The new generation in Turkey should change this atmosphere of animosity, by taking certain concrete steps. And one of these steps could be the return of Armenian churches and monasteries.”
This does not have to be a political action. It can be an act of good will in accordance with international law and human rights.
The European Court of Human Rights has said that churches and monasteries need to be returned to their legitimate owners. We’re expecting this. Let’s see.