The Armenian Genocide: 1915-1923

The Armenian Genocide—the first genocide of the 20th century—took the lives of 1.5 million Armenians, who were massacred by Ottoman Turkey’s “Young Turk” government beginning in 1915. The deportation and mass extermination of Armenians continued until 1923.

Planned and executed during World War I, the Armenian Genocide saw the virtual elimination of Armenians from their ancestral homeland. Those who were not killed immediately were led on horrific death marches, like the one through the Der Zor desert in Syria. The mass exodus of surviving Armenians from Anatolia resulted in the dispersal of the Armenian people to every corner of the world. Today, the large Armenian diaspora comprises over 4 million people (roughly equal to the number of Armenians living in the modern Republic of Armenia).

The Armenian Genocide began on April 24, 1915, when Ottoman authorities arrested and killed some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople. Those arrested included Armenian doctors, lawyers, parliamentarians, authors, and artists. Armenian civilians—including the elderly, women and children—were then forcibly removed from their homes and sent on death marches for hundreds of miles, with no food or water.

To this day, the Republic of Turkey continues to deny that the Armenian Genocide took place, although historians and scholarly authorities throughout the world recognized the Genocide as a tragic fact of history.

For years, Armenian communities around the world commemorate each April 24 as “Armenian Martyrs Day,” which they observe with religious and cultural memorials. This continues to this day.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the genocide martyrs were canonized during a special service at the Mother See of Holy Etchimiadzin as the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide on April 23, 2015. This made the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide the first saints canonized in the Armenian Church in hundreds of years. With the canonization, the Armenian Church’s newest feast day, the Commemoration of the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, is celebrated on April 24.

Tamar of Mogk

St. Tamar, a Christian woman from Mogk, was martyred for confessing her faith in Christ in 1398 A.D. In her life, she took on the name Kohar, meaning precious gem.

It was believed that the devil caused a Kurd from the same district of Mogk as Tamar to be fixated on her beauty. He had a strong desire to take her away from her husband, Tuma, and to kill him. When word of this reached Tamar—a woman of great faith—she fled with her husband and their children to the island of Aghtamar on Lake Van.

Years later, Tamar and her husband came out of hiding, but the Kurds recognized them and took them to the local governors, Emir Azdin and his wife Pasha Khatun. Pasha Khatun promised generous gifts to Tamar if she agreed to give up her Christian faith, but warned that if she refused, Tamar would face a severe death.

Tamar did not hesitate in telling Pasha Khatun that she would never forsake Christ. She asked Pasha Khatun to inflict extreme tortures upon her immediately, declaring that she would die for Christ before accepting even the most lavish gift for denouncing Him. Enraged, Pasha Khatun imprisoned Tamar and subjected her to starvation.

Still, Tamar stood firmly by her faith. Christians came to Pasha Khatun offering large sums of money for Tamar’s release, but instead, Pasha Khatun had Tamar taken out of town to be stoned.

At the place of execution, Tamar was repeatedly asked if she would abandon her faith, but she replied with an even greater profession of devotion to Christ. Just as she confessed this, she began to be struck with stones.

Christians buried her with dignity, remembering her for her piety and modesty. It is said that she had sewn her skirt and the neck of her tunic so as not to expose herself in her final moments. Tamar, or Kohar, was truly God’s precious gem.

St. Santoukhd, the First Martyr

The story of St. Santoukhd, the first Armenian saint, is inextricably bound to that of Saint Thaddeus. Thaddeus, one of Christ’s holy disciples, was charged by Peter, leader of the disciples, to spread Christianity in Armenia in the 1st century A.D.

In his travels to Urfa, St. Thaddeus healed King Abgar, king of the Armenians and Assyrians. This miracle, witnessed by others, led to the king’s conversion as well as the baptism and conversion of all the people of Edessa. Here St. Thaddeus built a church and ordained priests and deacons.

After leaving Urfa, the apostle traveled to northern Armenia, bearing the spear given him by Peter and a letter from King Abgar. He finally arrived at the town of Shavarshan, where King Sanadroug lived in the province of Arda. He preached the Word of Life, performed many astonishing miracles there, and baptized many believers.

One night the young and beautiful Princes Santoukhd, the king’s daughter, went to see Thaddeus and find out about the new religion herself. According to accounts, she changed her royal garments and dressed in ordinary clothes and was led by a servant to a house where these early Christian meetings were held. Santoukhd received instruction from Thaddeus, and when she declared her belief in Christ and was baptized, a sign from heaven designated her as a holy virgin.

Those who witnessed this event immediately believed. The news enraged her father, King Sanadroug, who ordered all believers to be slain. As the soldiers were about to kill Thaddeus, a tremor and bright light streaked across the sky, frightening the unbelievers and sparing the apostle. Some time after this, however, the king’s soldiers came and arrested Thaddeus as well as Princess Santoukhd.

Despite the king’s punitive actions, the number of Christians increased. Even some of the king’s soldiers who witnessed the miracles of Thaddeus became believers and converted. Further enraged, yet feeling some pity for his daughter, the king summoned Santoukhd from prison to give her a last chance to renounce her new faith and to claim allegiance to her father and his pagan gods.

Santoukhd was forced to choose between the crown and the sword. Because of her decision to stand firm in her Christian faith and reject her father’s false gods, she was subjected to torture and ultimately ordered to be executed. During these times when she was weak and at her lowest, she drew strength from St. Thaddeus who encouraged her to hold fast, reminding her that she was a holy virgin and would soon see Christ face to face.

One account of her death states that immediately after one of the soldiers thrust his sword into the holy virgin’s heart “a sweet fragrance filled the air and a light shone from heaven in the form of a fiery pillar that hovered over Santoukhd’s body for three days and three nights.” The more than 2,000 people that witnessed these events, it is said, all converted and were baptized that night. St. Santoukhd’s body was buried and entombed by St. Thaddeus at the same site.

St. Santoukhd was martyred on the 15th of December, and the apostle St. Thaddeus, eight days later.

St. Shooshan the Martyr

The story of St. Shooshan (or Shooshanik) is the oldest surviving work of Georgian literature, and is believed to have taken place in the mid-5th century. St. Shooshanik descended from a distinguished line of Christian saints that traces itself back to St. Sahag. St. Sahag’s daughter, Sahaganoosh, who married Hmazasb Mamigonian, bore a son St. Vartan, whom in turn, had a daughter Shooshanik.

Shooshanik’s marriage to Antipatros (cf. Varsken the Pitiakhsh), a prince and leader of the Georgians, proved to be a tragic one. He had joined the Zoroastrian pagan religion of the magi, partly to seek favor from the Persian king, but also because of his own sinful ways. His unnatural lust for his own daughter brought much suffering and pain to Shooshanik.

She reproached her husband and warned of God’s righteous judgment, which punishes those who break these laws. Because he dismissed these reproaches and denied the True God, Shooshanik refused to share his bed. Enraged, he harassed, beat, and inflicted unspeakable tortures upon her. For six years he tormented the blessed woman. Holding true to her Christian faith, she patiently bore his cruelty.

As death neared, she summoned the chief bishop Samuel and his associate Hohan, who had supported her throughout the long ordeal. They came and gave her their final blessing. Similarly, all the noble lords, princesses, and gentry, as well as the common people, witnessed the blessing and praised her as a valiant defender of the faith and a confessor of Christ. Bishops and generals fought over who should receive the chains that had been on her feet, as a token of blessing.

The blessed princess’ response to all the commotion was a humble one: “I am unworthy of all this, but do as you wish in accordance with your love of God ….Let Christ our God, who is my Lord and hope, accept me and bless all of you and give good gifts according to each one’s labor.” She ordered her remains to be buried at the site from which she was first dragged.

Until her final moments, she praised God for giving her strength to endure the tortures suffered in His name, and she offered her prayer for God’s mercy to be accepted into God’s eternal kingdom. After her final “Amen” to all, her body was cleaned and wrapped in fine linens and escorted with great honor by priests, deacons, and the people to the prepared tomb. With psalms and thanksgiving they praised God through the night. The Passion of St. Shooshanik is commemorated on the Tuesday of the week of the Lent of Holy Cross of Varak. The Orthodox Church celebrates the day on August 28/September 10 each year.

Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebastia

During the 4th century, the period when Christianity began to spread, conflicts still arose between those who boldly embraced their new faith and those pagan emperors who persecuted them. The Holy Martyrs of Sebastia, according to legend, were a group of exceptionally brave soldiers who came from families of nobility and stood firm in their Christian faith. They formed a part of the Roman army and served in the regions of Cappadocia. It is said that they came from various cities of Lesser Armenia (Pokhr Haik), and that some of them were assumed to be Armenian.

The Roman emperor during that time, Licinius, had expanded his anti-Christian crusade and demanded that any Christians in the army would have to return to the pagan faith or be killed. It was soon discovered that in Sebastia that an elite military unit of soldiers was Christian. These forty youth were brought before the judge of the region and questioned. The soldiers confirmed that they were, indeed, Christians. Unafraid, they asserted that they were loyal to the emperor as evidenced by their success as soldiers, but that they also bore allegiance to their heavenly king and held fast to their Christian beliefs.

Despite attempts by Duke Liucias of Caesarea, who went personally to urge the young soldiers to abide by the king’s orders, the youth refused to obey. Because his reputation and eminence were at stake, the duke was forced to impose severe punishment on the young soldiers. He ordered the stoning of the soldiers, thus silencing those who persistently defended their Christian faith. However, as the duke himself hurled the first stone, a miraculous thing happened. The stone, instead of reaching its intended target, flew in exactly the opposite direction and wounded the judge’s face. When the security guards also started throwing stones, they, too, were unable to harm the young Christian soldiers. Instead, their stones struck themselves.

After this terrifying experience, the Duke ordered the death of the resistant youth in an extremely brutal manner. During a freezing winter night, he ordered the young men be taken nude to the lake near the city and spend the night in the frozen waters. Only if the soldiers renounced their faith and became pagans would they be able to be spared. One of the forty soldiers broke away and abandoned his Christian faith; the remaining 39 froze to death.

A second miraculous event occurred that night. Bright halos appeared and rested above the soldiers’ heads, illuminating the area and causing great confusion among the guards. Moved by the experience, one of the guards declared himself a Christian and threw himself into the lake with the other martyred soldiers, bringing the number to 40 again. At dawn, their bodies were removed from the lake and taken away to be cremated, and their ashes were thrown into the river. The Bishop of Sebastia had secretly arranged for the remains of the martyrs to be brought back to him in an effort to bring comfort and consolation to the families of the soldiers.

This significant event, which had far-reaching effects on the people of the region because of its barbarity and injustice, took place in the winter of 316 A.D. Shortly thereafter, a magnificent church with 40 belfries was erected in memory of the soldiers. The church was active until 1400 when the conqueror Tamerlane captured Sebastia and destroyed its 120,000 people and the church. Subsequently, the site was used as a graveyard and a chapel was built there. The chapel was later destroyed during the Great Massacres of 1915.

The memory of the Forty Saints of Sebastia is celebrated each year on the Saturday following the mid-point of Lent (Michink). A ceremonial Divine Liturgy is celebrated on the following day, Sunday.

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