‘People make choices. Choices make history’

Years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to Israel with a group of people of faith. While there, we visited many holy sites, including the Churc...

Years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to Israel with a group of people of faith. While there, we visited many holy sites, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This church is especially sacred to Christians because it sits on top of the Grotto, or cave, where it is believed Jesus was born.

The Church of the Nativity is shared and maintained by three different branches of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic. Upon arriving at the church, I went to the Armenian section and was saddened to see that it was a small chapel tucked off in a corner, clearly secondary to the main body of the cathedral. I took a seat and noted all the representations of Armenian religion and culture around me — crosses, jewels, tapestries and Armenian writing.

While I sat there, tourists walked through the small chapel chewing gum, talking about where they would go for lunch, looking briefly at the iconography, and leaving quickly. I found it disheartening.

Then, suddenly, a side door opened and dozens of Armenians poured into the chapel. They were carrying a coffin and began to make preparations for a funeral. An Armenian cleric entered; there was much crying for the one who had passed away.

As the funeral progressed, I was shocked to see that people kept walking through the chapel with no regard for the service happening right in front of them. I ran out the side door into a courtyard, sat on a low stone wall, and wept.

It seemed to me that what I observed in the Armenian chapel was emblematic of the whole Armenian experience. For so long, our people have been ignored and overlooked, our culture devalued, and our story denied.

Outside on the stone wall, I felt I was shedding the tears of generations — the tears of those long dead who are still crying out for recognition and justice. Most of all, I was crying for all those lost in the Armenian genocide.

It was on April 24, 1915, 106 years ago today, that Turkish soldiers in the Ottoman Empire rounded up almost 300 Armenian political leaders, educators, writers and clergy in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and took them to the interior of Anatolia, where they killed all but two of them.

That spring, the Turkish government ordered the systematic killing and deportation of the Armenian population of that country. Village by village, Armenian men were taken away and murdered. Following a precise plan, Armenian women, children and the elderly were herded in long columns, and marched south to the Syrian desert.

Those forced on the “death marches” were exposed to extreme hunger and thirst, attacked regularly by the Turkish soldiers leading the march on horseback, and subjected to every conceivable form of humiliation and torture. Most suffered horrific deaths along the way. The Armenian people were effectively eliminated from their homeland of nearly 3,000 years.

In total, 1.5 million Armenians died in the genocide. Before the slaughter, 2.1 million Armenians lived in Turkey; after the genocide three out of four were gone. The details of the genocide are unspeakable.

My father, Fred Ayvazian, was a survivor. My sisters and I grew up hearing the stories of the genocide. Our Dad called it “the massacres,” my grandmother called it “the atrocities.”

Scholars agree that the killing of the Armenian people was the first systematic genocide of the 20th century. But the Turkish government has never acknowledged the genocide — they call it a “civil war,” and blame the Armenians for their own deaths.

When not rewriting history, Turkish authorities respond to evidence of the genocide with silence and denial, which cause immense sorrow for the Armenian people. To have the tragic and horrendous suffering that your people endured be repeatedly denied is painful, ahistorical, unjust and crazy-making.

My father, who died in 2009, spent his life writing and speaking about the genocide. He drew attention to it in every way he possibly could. His greatest hope was that during his lifetime he would witness the Turkish government admit to the atrocities of the genocide.

In a guest column in the Gazette before his death, my father said, “For over four generations, the voices of Armenian survivors have asked for recognition of their genocide, for acknowledgement of their martyrs, and for correction of their history under the rule of Ottoman Turkey.”

Our story, like those of other ethnic groups that have experienced genocide, is horribly sad. The trauma in families is profound, and the grief in our community reverberates in staggering waves of sorrow, just as I experienced at the Church of the Nativity.

But it is also important to say that the Armenian people are strong and vibrant. We are courageous truth-tellers. We have been crushed, and have risen again.

A wonderful group in Boston called Facing History and Ourselves has created a curriculum for school children that accurately tells the story of the Armenian people. The group has this tagline that appears on their materials: “People make choices. Choices make history.”

People made choices to exterminate an entire ethnic group. Those choices made history.

The Armenian people and our allies have made choices as well — we have chosen to keep telling the truth. Over decades, we tell the Turkish government that their denial of the genocide continues to cause the Armenian people to suffer, and prevents their own people from moving forward. We implore the Turkish people to wrestle with the genocide and to help us try to heal the wounds of the atrocities.

Today, on Armenian Martyrs’ Day, Armenians all over the world are raising our flag and again telling our story.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian of Northampton is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.

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Newsrust - US Top News: ‘People make choices. Choices make history’
‘People make choices. Choices make history’
Newsrust - US Top News
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