Genocide

Genocides and Holocausts: Never Again

Photo via REUTERS / Amir Cohen
An Armenian woman lights a candle in remembrance of the Armenian genocide. Photo via REUTERS / Amir Cohen

One hundred years ago — April 1915 — as World War I raged across Europe, the government of the Ottoman Empire attacked its Armenian citizens. Over the next several years, it is estimated that as many as 1.5 million Armenians died. Able-bodied men were murdered or enslaved as forced labor in the army, and hundreds of thousands of women, children, the infirm, and the elderly were marched into the Syrian desert to face death.

Supported by the Young Turks, an ultranationalist party that approved systematic deportation, abduction, torture, massacre, and the expropriation of Armenian wealth, the German-allied Ottoman government used the excuse of war to initiate the forcible removal of Armenians from Armenia and Anatolia where they had lived for centuries.

The targeting and mass murder of Armenians has been termed a genocide.

Although racial, ethnic, and religious wars have killed millions over the centuries, genocide is a unique byproduct of the 20th century. It requires both a rabid nationalism and the capacity of a central authority to organize and implement a sustained and systematic program of targeted mass destruction. Not until the 20th century had governments the necessary technologies, resources, and means to ally their historical ethnic, religious, or racist hatreds with radical nationalism to end the collective existence of a people.

The Armenian genocide was recognized and deplored around the world, even as modern Turkey resists the “genocide” label. American diplomats, Russians, Arabs, and German officers stationed in Ottoman lands witnessed the slaughter and alerted the wider world. In May 1915, Great Britain, France, and Russia vowed to hold the Turks personally responsible for their crimes. Relief efforts to save the “starving Armenians” were widespread.

On Eve of Anniversary, Turkey’s ‘Cultural Genocide’ of Armenian History Is Ongoing

Photo via Tania Karas / RNS
The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, Lake Van in Turkey. Photo via Tania Karas / RNS

This tiny Kurdish village outside the city of Van in Turkey’s southeast is home to the ruins of a once-famous 11th-century Armenian Christian monastery.

Known to Armenians as Varagavank, it thrived as a place of worship until Turkish forces looted it and murdered parishioners in the mass killing sprees of 1915.

Today, the roof is collapsing. Toppled stone columns lie nearby. And with no signage, there is no acknowledgment it was once a celebrated church for Armenians.

Varagavank is one of hundreds of disappearing physical reminders of a community whose history in present-day Turkey goes back more than 2,000 years. Over the past century, the Turkish government — in writing its own narrative of what Armenians call genocide — has destroyed many Armenian churches, homes, schools, and cemeteries, or allowed them to fall into ruins. They are sites other countries might consider valuable antiquities.

“The term we use for this is ‘cultural genocide,’” said Vahram Ter-Matevosyan, a historian at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

“We consider what is happening to many churches a continuation of the genocide which started at the beginning of the 20th century. It is painful, utterly painful.”

Historians and visitors have noted holes in the ground of Armenian historical sites throughout Turkey, evidence of widespread rumors that Armenians buried their riches before fleeing.

Hermine Sayan, an Armenian who lives in Istanbul, said her heart was broken when she visited what remained of a destroyed church in Malatya, a city in eastern Turkey, a few years ago.

“We stood together saying our prayers, and we were crying,” said Sayan, whose grandparents survived the genocide.

On April 24, Armenians worldwide will commemorate 100 years since almost 1.5 million of their ancestors died in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, in massacres, by starvation or during forced death marches into the Syrian desert.

Part III: Embodying Life

I felt the ground crumbling from beneath me and so I clung to silence. Still, the sound of death was there. I tried to drown out the haunting screams echoing in my brain with my breath — but the rising and falling of my chest exhausted my efforts. In remembering those suffocated by inhumanity, I felt guilty for breathing in the sweet scent of life. Here, memories of death are inescapable in a country that holds so much beauty.

We stayed in silence together as we drove home — attempting to escape the bloody reminders of death. Home is at the Pallottine mission guesthouse built on the same campus that the Gikondo Massacre took place 20 years ago. On April 10, 1994, three days after the genocide began, the interahamwe savagely murdered 110 Tutsis in a large parish on this campus. As if simply killing wasn’t enough, the militia slowly tortured and mutilated the bodies of all Tutsis present at the church. Somehow, 11 children survived the slaughter and were hidden in another chapel by the parish nuns — I could see this chapel from the balcony of my guest room. But three days later, the interahamwe returned to Gikondo to set the chapel on fire. There were no survivors. This is the place we call “home.” The UNAMIR considered this massacre at Gikondo the first evidence of “genocide,” referring to violent crimes intending to wipe out the existence of a people group. In response to these evident systematic killings, the commander of the U.N. Peacekeepers pleaded with his superiors to allow him to intervene before more died. He said that he only needed 2,500 troops to end the slaughter within weeks to defend the Tutsis. His plan of attack against the interahamwe would stop their violent rampage. Shockingly, the U.N. denied his request and instead, required 90 percent of peacekeeping forces to withdraw from Rwanda. A month later in May, the U.N. Security Council finally voted to send 5,500 peacekeeping troops to Rwanda however, the United States stalled their deployment. Delighted by the world’s lack of response, the interahamwe continued to reign and the bloodbath escalated. One hundred days passed and still, the world did not say a word.

Joshua broke the silence,

Rwanda 20 Focus On Prevention

That recognition of the shared agenda of people of faith is why we also included Bishop Holley from the Archdiocese of Washington, the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, Galen Carey, Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America in the dinner with the three faith leaders from the Central African Republic.

Part I: Remembering That Out of Death Comes Life

Conversations in the car are intense. Colonization, spirituality, politics and utter brutality, violence and betrayal — all incomprehensible factors that led up to genocide. Our conversations are set to the backdrop of thousands of lush hills and thousands of massive graves concealing bones — bones of innocent men, women, and children whose only crime was being born Tutsi. The coexistence of Rwanda’s brutal history and scenic beauty is surreal.

No matter how many questions I ask, how many stories I listen to, how many fragments of bones I see, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand how in just one hundred days, close to one million people were slaughtered as if they had no worth. Identifying with these stories of gross atrocity seems impossible.

“I don’t really call myself a survivor because when the one hundred days of genocide began, I was in Uganda. Even though I came back to Rwanda in the middle of the killings, I was never in an area controlled by the militia. Yes, it was risky to return to Rwanda at that time and I remember two occasions where I got very close to being killed—but my story isn’t as significant as others we will be seeing. For example, my wife’s—she survived, but barely. She doesn’t talk about it.”

Struggling Alongside the People of Sudan and South Sudan

Protests against violence in Darfur, David Burrows / Shutterstock.com
Protests against violence in Darfur, David Burrows / Shutterstock.com

Americans were introduced to Sudan and what is now South Sudan by immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees like the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, who sought protection from a brutal dictatorship in Khartoum. Sudanese turned to the U.S. for a better life not only for themselves but in order to support their family and friends back home, and to advocate for help in stopping genocide, mass atrocities, and human rights abuses committed by an oppressive regime. Many Sudanese captured our hearts not only because of their fight for freedom and their bravery in enduring terrible suffering, but because of their resolve to access the educational and employment opportunities available in the U.S. to prepare themselves to return and help rebuild a country destroyed by decades of state-sponsored violence.

Transcending a Genocidal God

From the History Channel's "The Bible"

HOW IS IT that a miniseries based on the Good Book could evoke sectarian and violent notions of the Divine that would have seemed backward to some even back in the era of melodramatic biblical epic cinema? The History channel’s The Bible, like so much of so-called “religious pop culture,” seemed to be the product of good people trying to do a good thing, but at best putting the desire to convey a particular message ahead of making the best artwork for the medium.

The politics of The Bible seemed to perpetuate an “us vs. them” lens. It left me wishing for a treatment of scripture presented from the perspective of the marginalized, instead of a portrayal of “victory” as being the deaths of people considered different. Couldn’t someone make an Exodus movie about Moses’ neighbors—you know, the ones who saw God’s favor rest on the boy next door, while their son was killed by a psychopathic king? Or one focused on the myriad people groups considered “unclean” and worthy of genocide at the hands of those who claim to speak for God? Or a rendering of John’s Revelation that understands it as a poem about remarkable beginnings, the battles of the human heart, and a love willing to remake the world to set us free from the traps we’ve laid for ourselves? You don’t even have to be that controversial—can’t someone just make a decent movie about Ruth or any of the many cool women in the gospels?

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Al-Khatib and Al Jazeera: Listening to Victims in Syria

Violence in Syria illustration, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com
Violence in Syria illustration, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

What the heck is going on in Syria? If you are like me, you have a problem keeping all the players straight, and the unfamiliar Arab names don’t help. Thankfully, the Syrian president has a relatively easy name to remember, Bashar al-Assad, but keeping track of who’s who and which side they’re on is a real challenge. Frankly, even when I can keep track, I’m very skeptical that I am getting anything close to the truth from news outlets, the White House, or our State Department. The talk about a “red line,” no-fly zones, arming terrorists, and weapons of mass destruction sounds a lot like the falderal we were being fed going into the Iraq war. So what’s a good citizen of the world to do? If I can’t make sense of the news accounts myself, who can I find to help me out? And if I can’t trust my government to sort out the good guys from the bad guys for me, how can I ever figure out what, if anything, my government should be doing in my name?

Guatemalans Gain Justice Over ‘Evangelical’ Dictator

Photo from humanrightsfilmfestival / Flickr.com.
Photo from humanrightsfilmfestival / Flickr.com.

Sunday afternoon, March 28, 1982. If you were an evangelical Christian living in Guatemala, watching TV, your heart would have been beating faster and tears of joy may have flowed down your cheeks.

A man was speaking so thoughtfully, with the Bible in hand. He was teaching the audience, “If there is no peace within the family, there would be no peace in the world. If we want peace, we need at first to be at peace in our hearts.” He went on, “Guatemala is the chosen people of the New Testament.”

That 55-year-old man was Guatemalan General Efrain Rios Montt, pastor of the Iglesia  Verbo (Church of the Word), who had recently become president of Guatemala through a military coup.

On May 10, 2013, a Guatemalan court sentenced Rios Montt to 80 years in prison after finding him responsible for deliberate killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule.

As Holocaust Museum Turns 20, Ranks of Survivors Dwindle

Photo courtesy Matt Dean of Matt Dean Photography
Holocaust survivor Norman Frajman. Photo courtesy Matt Dean of Matt Dean Photography

WASHINGTON — The adult survivors of the Holocaust are mostly gone now, and those who survived as children — and were old enough at the time to remember their ordeals — are now in their 70s and 80s.

It won’t be long before no eyewitnesses remain.

That’s why, as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum marks its 20th anniversary today (April 29) with more than 750 survivors, museum officials are calling it one the last large gatherings of those who managed to escape Hitler’s death machine.

For those who have dedicated themselves to teaching future generations about the Holocaust and its victims, the demise of the survivors means looking backward in a different way — a way that no longer includes people looking others straight in the face and recounting what they saw and what they lived.

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