Genocide Centennial in New York City

By Florence Avakian

An estimated 15,000 people from all over America’s east coast took part in the Armenian Genocide Centennial gathering in Times Square, New York City, on Sunday, April 26, 2015—the largest such gathering in the history of the event.

The day began with thousands of Armenian faithful filling St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral and its surrounding plaza and streets in Midtown Manhattan. The Diocesan Center’s Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium was outfitted as a second with a screen to watch the service as it was livestreamed to hundreds of viewers on the Internet. This lower “sanctuary,” where priests were on hand to confer the sacrament of communion at the appointed time, was likewise filled to capacity with worshippers.

The faithful and their pastors had come in crowded buses from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Washington D.C., and upstate New York to join together in a unified prayer service, followed by a march to Times Square for the annual gathering.

The badarak at St. Vartan Cathedral was majestically celebrated by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, and the inspiring homily was delivered by Archbishop Osahagan Choloyan. A choir of 100 singers from Diocesan and Prelacy parishes sang the glorious chants of the Yegmalian badarak under the direction of St. Vartan Cathedral choirmaster Maestro Khoren Mekanejian. Florence Avakian accompanied on the organ.

Three dozen clergymen and another three dozen ambassadors and UN dignitaries took part in the service. As announced by Archbishop Barsamian during the church, the latter including Armenia’s Ambassador to the United States Tigran Sargisyan and its United Nations ambassador Zohrab Mnatsakanyan; also the UN representatives from Belarus, Benin, Bosnia, the Central African Republic, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Latvia, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Poland, Russia, Rwanda, Serbia, Slovenia, the Republic of South Africa, Suriname, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uruguay.

A visitor who garnered a special attention was America’s own UN ambassador, Samantha Power.

Remember and Renew

“Today, we are gathered to remember and bow before our ancestors of a hundred years ago who now are saints,” stated Archbishop Choloyan in a moving homily delivered in Armenian and English. “Our martyrs have now become an extension of God. Just as our martyrs kept their faith, we must also. We are deeply grateful for their love and loyalty in keeping our faith and culture alive.”

Today, he continued, “is a day to renew our faith, our culture, and our dedication to our homeland so we can be worthy of their sacrifice. Let us give gratitude to God for allowing us to live and flourish. Let us march together as one body, one mind, one soul, to demonstrate our respect to our martyrs. They live for us and with us. Today is the proof that our martyrs died so we can live,” he declared in an emotion-filled voice.

At the conclusion of the badarak, a special service for the newly-canonized Genocide saints was conducted by the clergy, as the choir sang the soulful and solemn chant “Hrashatsan,” composed for this occasion by the late Archbishop Zareh Aznavourian. Eight white floral crosses, donated by Adrienne Alexanian were placed around the sanctuary to represent the eight Armenian provinces lost during the Genocide.

Massive March

Following the church service, sandwiches donated by Hratch Toufayan were distributed to the huge crowd numbering close to 15,000, all wearing the violet Forget-Me-Not pins symbolizing the Genocide centennial, as they lined up to march with banners and American, Armenian, and Artsakh flags to Times Square.

Two large decorated floats, one filled with Armenians and the other with supportive Greeks and Cypriots, led the massive crowd, along with dozens of clergy and more than a hundred Homenetmen scouts. The marchers, accompanied by supportive New York City police, started the mile-long walk from St. Vartan Cathedral, singing and chanting proudly.

Crowds of onlookers stopped to ask questions and were handed information flyers by teams of young Armenians who comprised a large proportion of the marchers. It was a vocal demonstration of remembrance and renewal.

Arriving at the destination in the center of Manhattan, the marchers occupied every available standing spot in Times Square from 42nd to 45th streets. In the many years of holding these commemorations, there had never been such an enormous and impressive gathering. As always, the event was organized by the Knights and Daughters of Vartan, this year in affiliation with the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of America, Eastern Region. The event enjoyed the participation of all the Armenian churches, as well as compatriotic, social, political, and benevolent organizations.

A billboard overlooking Times Square and a banner behind the podium stage proclaimed: “Centennial of the Armenian Genocide: 1915 to 2015. United We Stand Against Genocide.”

A Styrofoam khatchkar was also placed in front of the stage. As the crowd settled in, testimonies of survivors, collected by the Shoah Foundation were played over the loudspeakers.

United Against Genocide

Under the direction of the Masters of Ceremonies-Southern Connecticut State University President Dr. Mary Papazian, attorney Armen McOmber, and author Chris Bohjalian—the two-hour program began with a moment of silence to honor the newly-sainted martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, who had been canonized three days earlier in a spectacular ceremony in Armenia.

In his invocation, Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan reminded the audience that April 24 from this day forward “will be a feast day for the sainted martyrs, when, “we will pray to them, not for them.” Paying tribute to Pope Francis and the European Parliament for their recent recognitions of the Genocide, he noted that they have joined a large list of countries which have done so.  However, he said, Turkish denial, and the U.S. State Department’s official silence on the issue, continue.

“The commitment became action,” he said. “We rejoice in the rebirth of the Christian nation of Armenia. We do not want revenge, but rather repentance, redemption, and restitution.”

To the delight of the crowd, a hundred white doves were released, flying all over Times Square to the deafening applause and cheers of all present. “They are a symbol of our faith and yearning for peace, and represent the souls of our martyr-saints, now set free,” declared Dr. Papazian.

Thanking America “for raising the alarm to the world,” through the work of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, countless consuls and missionaries, Near East Relief, and Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan—who in modern times referred to the Armenian Genocide—Dr. Papazian expressed appreciation to this country for “taking us in, giving us fertile soil to heal, raise families, educate our children, reconstitute our lost and broken communities, and imagine a future as glorious as our past.”

Several American politicians addressed the crowd, including longtime Armenian supporters in Congress, Senators Robert Menendez and Charles Schumer, Representatives Frank Pallone, and Carolyn Maloney, and City Councilman Paul Vallone. Proclamations from New York Governor Cuomo and Connecticut Governor Malloy, proclaiming April 24 as “Armenian Remembrance Day,” were read.

The impressive roster of speakers included Dr. Taner Akcam, who was imprisoned in Turkey for ten years, and theologians Dr. Stephen Smith, of the USC Shoah Foundation, and Rabbi Steven Burg, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance. Each voiced support for “all people of a shared humanity.”

Honore Gatera, a survivor of the Rwanda Genocide, and manager of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center in Rwanda, spoke of his dedication to raise awareness of genocides throughout history. And Benjamin Machar and Angelo Maker, two of the 20,000 Sudanese Lost Boys Survivors, spoke of the ongoing atrocities around the world. “Say Never Again to any genocide, they declared.

Playwright and Academy Award-winner Alex Dinelaris and author Chris Bohjalian each spoke of their work in informing the American public of the Armenian Genocide.

Knights of Vartan Grand Commander Steve Kradjian and his wife, Daughters of Vartan Grand Matron Lisa Kradjian, related the noble work of both organizations, both to the Armenian-American community, and to Armenia.

ARF Eastern U.S. Central Committee chair Hayg Oshagan promised, “We will walk in Van, Moush, Sivas, and all our historic areas, and we will plant the Armenian flag on Mt. Ararat.” Armenian Assembly of America representative Van Krikorian relayed the sad news that America’s first and much loved Ambassador to Armenia, Harry Gilmore, had passed away last week.

The cultural program included music sensation Sebu Simonian, whose single “Safe and Sound” reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard Alternative Rock chart; the noted Armenian Society Areni Choir directed by Dr. Armine Vardanian; and a joyous flash mob of eight different Hamaskayin dance groups from different locations under the direction of David Garabedian.

Winners of the 8th annual Knights and Daughters of Vartan Armenian Genocide Commemoration Essay Contest were announced, with Davis Hovhannisyan from Clearwater, FL, winning the top prize; and “place” and “show” prizes going to Nicole Issagholian from Bayside, NY, and Nareg Balian from Chevy Chase, MD.

Closing the memorable program, Dr. Papazian paid a special tribute to Knights of Vartan official Hrant Gulian, who for the past 30 years has directed the annual Times Square Genocide commemorations. Earlier in the afternoon, Senator Schumer had remembered the late Sam Azadian—another able leader of the community who conceived and led the Times Square event for many years, in partnership with Mr. Gulian.

In addition to the 30 Armenian-American organizations participating this year were Greek, Cypriot, Syriac, Kurdish, and Chechen groups, and the Peoples’ Democratic Party from Turkey.

Offering the benediction, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian asked for prayers for the people of Nepal who had just suffered an earthquake. He expressed appreciation to the Knights and Daughters of Vartan members “who have brought all of our people together today; and to my brother clergy for coming together in unity to commemorate a dark episode in human history, and to show the world the indestructible spirit of the Armenian people.”

He then led the throng in a singing the Hayr Mer—which closed the momentous Genocide Centennial Times Square commemoration.

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