By Florence Avakian
In one of America’s most distinguished religious sanctuaries, the neo-gothic Washington National Cathedral, more than 2,500 people filled every seat to witness a majestic Ecumenical Prayer Service for Justice and Peace.
His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, and His Holiness Aram I, the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, presided over the historic two-hour service, which was sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Church of Christ in the U.S.A.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and the President of the Republic of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan led the roster of dignitaries present, which also included the leader of the worldwide Syriac Orthodox Church, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.
As the service began, the early evening’s fading sunlight streamed through the magnificent stained glass windows, evoking the remembrance of the holy martyrs, the survival and flourishing of the Armenian people, as well as the prayers being offered for justice and peace in the world.
This Episcopal Church’s magnificent National Cathedral (the sixth largest in the world, and second largest in the United States) was chartered by the U.S. Congress on January 6, 1893. Among the notable American citizens interred there are President Woodrow Wilson; his grandson and dean of the Cathedral Francis Bowes Sayre, Jr.; and the legendary advocate for the blind and deaf Helen Keller. The cathedral is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Other notables present included Foreign Minister of Armenia Edward Nalbandian, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff, Cardinal Emeritus McCarrick of the Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church, and many other leading ecclesiastical figures.
The event was part of the National Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide Centennial, a joint project of the Dioceses and Prelacies of the Armenian churches of America, on the east and west coasts. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian, and Archbishop Vicken Aykazian led the National Commemoration committee, which was chaired by Dr. Noubar Afeyan.
Because of the high security due to the presence of Vice President Biden and President Sargsyan, all attendees had to come to the cathedral two hours in advance, and patiently waited in line to enter, going through electronic checkpoints, and presenting IDs and tickets for the event.
As the organ burst forth with the glorious hymn Hrashapar filling every crevice of the edifice with its magnificent sculptured marble arches, the excitement in the cathedral was palpable. More than 50 priests and high-ranking clergy of the Armenian and sister Christian churches proceeded down the center aisle. At last came the two catholicoi in their splendid vestments, who ascended to the altar, followed by the Armenian and non-Armenian clergy.
Remembrance and Reflection
Mingled amid the ceremonial atmosphere was an ever-present feeling of sadness for the one and a half million Armenian martyrs, in whose memory the participants had gathered.
In a warm welcoming message, the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, recalled that the Rev. Martin Luther King had preached his last sermon in the cathedral. “The Genocide awakened the world, but the people have not yet been fully cognizant of it. We must shout Never Again,” she stated.
Armenian President Sargsyan noted that humanity had failed to prevent the genocide of the Armenians, the Holocaust, and genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and currently among minorities in the Middle East and Africa. He expressed gratitude to the numerous countries which recognized the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
“They came together in an international effort against the crimes of genocide, and declared their unity to restore justice and help the truth win. This ecumenical prayer of solidarity is a brilliant act of such unity,” he declared.
“In our century-long struggle for justice and truth, we have constantly felt the support of the U.S.A., among other nations. Many more would have died, and the fate of many survivors would have become more cruel had friendly countries, including the U.S., not stood by the side of our people in that difficult period,” the Armenian leader stated. “Let us try to bandage the wounds of humanity in order to achieve justice and peace for us and around the world.”
Catholicos Aram I forcefully declared in his message, “Genocide is a crime against humanity. The martyrs are the blood of our church. Reconciliation is important, but recognition implies reparations for genocide. Let’s join all our efforts to replace injustice with justice, and polarization by un-polarization. The truth will liberate us,” he proclaimed to a lengthy ovation.
With dozens of ushers proceeding down the aisles lighting candles held by all, prayers were recited by the clergy, and answered by the faithful in attendance.
Witness to Death and Life
In a homily, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, announced: “We commemorate those who became witness to death, but also to life. Their forebears are our forebears, and their prayers are our prayers.”
Catholicos Karekin II’s powerful message praised the “sons and daughters of our people who came together, joined by their brothers and sisters of different nationalities and creeds, to once again remember our martyrs, and rejoice in their spiritual bravery, and for never renouncing their faith and nation. For the past 100 years, our people have hungered and thirsted for justice more than anything else.”
He also paid tribute to the inspiring Mass offered for the Armenian martyrs at the Vatican by Pope Francis, who recognized the Genocide of the Armenians, saying: “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
Catholicos Karekin II singled out the American people, from President Woodrow Wilson and Ambassador Henry Morgenthau to the relief organizations and the National Council of Churches.
As the majestic service ended, the clergy and congregation joined together in the prayerful singing of the “Hayr Mer.” Before leaving the cathedral, both catholicoi greeted President Sargsyan, Vice President Biden, Ambassador Power, and Rep. Schiff, thanking them for their attendance.
The dozens of clerics proceeded up the center aisle to the sounds of “Oorakh Ler” (“Let Us Rejoice”), a prayerful chant for a world where understanding, love and peace can reign. The organ was played by Fr. Mamigon Kilejian, accompanied the 150-person choir conducted by Maestro Khoren Mekanejian.