By Florence Avakian
In the huge ballroom of Washington’s Marriott Marquis Hotel—splendidly chandeliered and bedecked with flowers, the eagerly-awaited, sold-out “awards banquet” took place on Saturday evening, May 9. It was the climactic event of the May 7 to 9 Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide Centennial, attended by some 2,500 guests from around the country.
His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, and His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, presided over the evening.
Among the attending dignitaries were Armenia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Tigran Sarkissian, Armenia’s Minister of the Diaspora Hranoush Hakobian, Ambassador John Evans, Congressional Armenian Caucus leaders Rep. Frank Pallone and Rep. Brad Sherman, chair of the National Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide Centennial Dr. Noubar Afeyan, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
In an opening prayer, Catholicos Aram I said, “We are here not only to commemorate our martyrs, but also to celebrate the renaissance and resurrection of the Armenian people. The Genocide wasn’t able to exterminate our people. We must identify the challenges of the Centennial and go beyond 2015, to affirm and renew our commitment to Armenia.”
Famed Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos served as a delightfully engaging Master of Ceremonies. He reminded the audience of the “priceless impact” of Pope Francis’ Vatican Mass for the Genocide martyrs, as well as reality star Kim Kardashian’s publicity-filled trip to Armenia.
In an inspiring address, Paul Ignatius, a former Secretary of the Navy, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Assistant Secretary of the Army, as well as president of the Washington Post newspaper, emotionally related that during the Genocide his father’s family had perished. “While Armenians will never forget, life goes on,” he said. “And though Turkey must atone for what they’ve done, I believe that normal relations would be beneficial for both Armenia and Turkey.”
He cited several positive events taking place, including a book acknowledging the Genocide, written by the grandson of Kemal Ataturk, which has been published and is being widely read.
As a gesture of good faith, he suggested, “Turkey should make Armenia a partner in rebuilding Ani, a World Heritage site.” Mr. Ignatius added, “…and Mt. Ararat should jointly be overseen by Armenia and Turkey. Armenians have been around for a long time, and are here to stay.”
Returning to the podium, Mr. Geragos received approving applause when he expanded on Secretary Ignatius’s words, to the effect that the return of Ararat would only be “the down payment” on the debt owed to the Armenians.
Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian, who has served eight U.S. presidential administrations and has been ambassador to Syria and Israel, related his own family’s losses during the Genocide, including his paternal grandparents. He paid tribute to the freedom of this country which gave his parents a new life, and the opportunity for him to become a diplomat.
“We are a country of refugees, immigrants and great opportunities. We must make sure that Armenia and Karabagh are guaranteed peace, security and prosperity,” he said. “Turkey must open its border, and help resolve the Karabagh crisis.”
In her forward-looking speech, Lara Setrakian, award-winning journalist who reports for Bloomberg Television, reminded the large number of young people attending the banquet that “We hold the power to shape a future of infinite possibilities.”
She noted the progress and advancements that the youth of Armenia have accomplished. “We don’t care about divisions among Armenians. We are Armenian, and that is what defines us.”
The well-known Zulal A Cappella Folk Trio-Teni Apelian, Yeraz Markarian, and Anais Tekerian-delighted the audience with intricate folk melodies, weaving musical images of rural village life.
Two of the strongest pro-Armenian voices in Congress, Rep. Frank Pallone and Rep. Brad Sherman, urged the Armenian diaspora to continue their pressure on Congress for the recognition of the Genocide, and for continued assistance to both Armenia and Karabagh. Rep. Sherman’s plan to eliminate all military aid to Azerbaijan brought on thunderous applause.
Centennial Commemoration chairman Dr. Noubar Afeyan expressed appreciation to Catholicos Karekin II and Catholicos Aram I, and thanked the Centennial Steering Committee-Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian, and Archbishop Vicken Aykazian. He conveyed thanks to the more than 100 volunteers who helped to organize the Washington Centennial events.
Awareness, Unity, Gratitude
Beautifully designed awards by acclaimed artist Michael Aram were presented by Dr. Noubar Afeyan to the representatives of individuals and organizations in different countries that stood with, aided, and defended the Armenian people in the time of the Genocide. “Today we remember those who helped us with profound thanks,” Dr. Afeyan said.
The organization honorees included the Near East Relief Foundation, which saved and rehabilitated tens of thousands of lives; the American Red Cross and Clara Barton, for their relief efforts during the Hamidian Massacres; the U.S. Congress, which incorporated the Near East Relief in 1919; The New York Times, which published more than 125 articles during the Genocide; the Shoah Foundation Institute, where Genocide research information has been digitized; Facing History and Ourselves, which develops resource materials, workshops and public lectures.
Individual honorees included President Woodrow Wilson, whose leadership inspired Americans to contribute; Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who courageously sounded the alarm; Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word “Genocide” using the 1915 atrocities as a prime example; Franz Werfel, who wrote of the brave resistance in the Forty Days of Musa Dagh; President Ronald Reagan, the only U.S. President to use the word “Genocide” while in office; Senator Robert Dole, for boldly bringing attention to the Genocide.
Awards also were presented to the Near East Relief missionaries Stanley and Elsa Kerr; Fridtjof Nansen, who created the Nansen passport; Turkish human rights activist Osman Baydemir; Fethiye Cetin, who revealed her Armenian background in her book, My Grandmother; and scholar Taner Akcam, who for 30 years has courageously contributed to the field of Genocide studies.
Finally, the countries that have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide were honored. The list includes Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Lebanon, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Uruguay, The Vatican, and Venezuela.
“As descendants of Genocide survivors, we have been given a second chance at life. We must stand and help others,” said Dr. Afeyan, who together with Ruben Vardanyan has created the “Aurora Prize” that will annually donate one million dollars to individuals or organizations that have taken action to preserve human lives.
Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, presented a token of appreciation to Dr. Afeyan for his “dedicated leadership” of the Centennial Commemorative Committee.
In impromptu remarks, Armenia’s Minister of the Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan spoke about the need to strengthen Armenia.
Catholicos Karekin II offered the final prayer, speaking to the assembled crowd-and to Armenians across the world-in the words of the gospels: “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before men, so they can see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.”
He concluded the evening by saying: “Continue in brotherhood, dear Armenians.”
The historic Genocide Centennial weekend in the nation’s capital concluded with a Sunday morning service of blessing for all mothers, conducted by Catholicos Karekin II and Catholicos Aram I, on May 10, Mother’s Day.
For Nanor Hartounian, a 20-year-old aspiring journalist from New Jersey, the entire National Commemoration weekend was a “reinvigoration of our devotion to the Armenian cause. What better way to remember the one and a half million lives lost at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, than to gather Armenians from all around the world to become ambassadors on behalf of those lost souls?”
Tatev Abrahamyan, a 27-year-old teacher from Los Angeles, found the weekend “touching, with everyone coming together, and finally being one. It was more than I had anticipated, and I was happily surprised.”
Dedicated Armenian community activist from Chicago Dr. Sam Mikaelian commented that the events recognizing the Armenian Genocide Centennial “without doubt went well beyond imagination and expectation. They reawakened a sensitivity to the realities of our history. Each event brought out in all of us a renewed passion to remember and honor our past, and especially our martyrs. This weekend was the regeneration of a long-awaited recognition of awareness and remembering.”