Armenian Genocide Centennial Commemoration Committee of Central Virginia Sprints Toward Genocide Awareness


Hayr Simeon Odabashian and Dr. Mayda Topoushian congratulates Ms. Lilly Thomas as co-recipient of the Legacy Award, for her many years of dedication and work on behalf of St. James Armenian Church, cultural events, and women's guild.  Not pictured and absent: co-recipient John Baronian.

Rev. Simeon Odabashian and Dr. Mayda Topoushian congratulate Lilly Thomas as co-recipient of the Legacy Award.

By Marni Pilafian

RICHMOND, Va. — William Saroyan might have been thinking about the small Armenian community in Richmond Virginia when he wrote, “For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.” The 8-member Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of Central Virginia (AGCCCV) was formed under the guidance of Father Mesrob Hovsepyan, who had encouraged members to spearhead events in our region. Little did he know, when he transferred to the St. Gregory the Enlightener Church in White Plains, NY, a month later, what an impact our small church of 125 active members would have on the centennial commemorations throughout the American diaspora. Other parishes have asked us how we accomplished what we did. We are indeed small in numbers; but like 10-inch sticks of dynamite, we pack a punch. In fact, our community members made our voices heard throughout five events.

In November 2014 Bedros Bandazian and Sona Kerneklian Pomfret, both members of the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of Central Virginia asked for participation by the Virginia Council of Churches in November 2014 to join the genocide centennial commemoration. The Council agreed to participate and issued a proclamation to help raise awareness of the Armenian Genocide and to help prevent future atrocities. The Reverend Jonathan Barton, General Minister of the Virginia Council of Churches, requested that all member churches of the Virginia Council of Churches, on Sunday April 19, pray en masse from their own pulpits, for the souls of the victims of the Armenian Genocide and for all genocide victims and their surviving families, past and present. This was a “high five” moment for the Centennial Committee, inspiring them to launch the several events to come.

“There is a sea change in awareness of the Armenian Genocide,” stated Khoren Bandazian, a native of Richmond and Chairman of the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of America, Eastern Region, in a letter written to our committee.

“While these national/ international events dominate the media, it is the local community events that can have the most lasting impact. For a small community, you do big things and it does not go unnoticed.”

In fact, our community members made our voices heard in two different political venues: at the office of a U.S. Congressman, and at the City of Richmond Council Chambers.

 

A Visit to Congressman Dave Brat’s Office

The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Richmond Chapter visited Rep. Dave Brat’s Richmond office on March 30: Melanie Bandazian Kerneklian, Dr. Murad Kerneklian, Bedros Bandazian, Sona Kerneklian Pomfret, and Dr. Paul Mazmanian. They shared a brief history of the resolution and the genocide, and asked Brat to sign the congressional letter to the President, asking for his signature on Resolution (HR 154). Melanie explained to Brat that his involvement would bring him exposure to the rest of the country. Sona Pomfret reminded Brat, “We are all here as children and grandchildren of survivors of a genocide that is not recognized by our government. We need your support.”

On April 13, the mayor of Richmond, Dwight Jones, and the City Council of Richmond proclaimed April 24th, 2015 Armenian Remembrance Day in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

The members of the City Council and the mayor, in the chambers of Richmond City Hall, stated their desire to unite in solidarity to officially recognize, honor and celebrate all Richmond residents of Armenian heritage. Jonathan T. Baliles, District City Councilman and sponsor of the proclamation, stated, “I am proud to represent the many residents of Armenian descent of the Richmond community and of St. James Armenian Church, which is in my District. The Richmond Armenian Community is an important part of our business, faith, and cultural enhancement for the City of Richmond, Virginia.”

The Proclamation was accepted by Bedros Bandazian, representing the Armenian National Committee of Virginia. Also accepting was Pomfret of the Armenian Genocide Centennial Commemoration Committee of Central Virginia, and Robert M. Norris, chairperson of the St. James Armenian Church Parish Council.

“What you see happening in the Middle East, the decimating of Christians and other religious minorities, is a repeat of what happened in 1915. Man’s inhumanity to man must stop,” implored Bandazian.

“One person killed is a crime. 1.5 million killed is a genocide. We must learn from the past in order to prevent genocide and move forward to reconcile these crimes.”

Other community members present represented the Armenian Relief Society “Hooys Chapter”, St. James Women’s Guild, St. James Cultural Committee, and St. James Education Center. The Armenian visitors thanked Charlie Diradour, a local businessman and political adviser, for helping the city champion this proclamation. Diradour has continually highlighted the Armenian cause with Virginia leaders of government. He is also a descendant of survivors of the Armenian Genocide.

On April 18, 12 religious leaders participated in the ecumenical service at Saint James Armenian Church, in memory of those who perished in the Armenian Genocide. The Very Rev. Simeon Odabashian spent hours by phone with the committee planning this service. At the luncheon, Odabashian welcomed all the religious leaders and four visiting Virginia politicians. His benediction was a blessing “to raise up a united prayer for a just and humane world, where respect and kindness rule everywhere.”

Dr. Mayda Topoushian, professor of World Studies and Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University, served as the Mistress of Ceremonies.

“We are here to remember, to denounce the Turkish amnesia of the demise of the Armenians and the Greeks,” she said.

Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America, gave the keynote address.

“This should be a time of solemn mourning for Armenians,” he said, “but instead it is a time of frustration, fighting with Turkey to express the truth. The United States is a less safe place when there is denial. If America accepts denial as a foreign policy, it is siding with evil. Let’s work to put America on the right side of the issue.”

Brat spoke at the ecumenical centennial commemoration luncheon.

“I was a former seminary student. I understand the morality and ethics of this historical situation. It is because of the issue of genocide that I had decided to run for Congress. And that is why I have cosponsored the Armenian Genocide Truth and Justice Resolution [H.R. 154].”

He was one of the 15 Republicans and more Democrats who had cosponsored the Resolution.

On April 23, at least 60 members of the Richmond Armenian Community attended one or both events at Virginia Commonwealth University, sponsored by Dr. Mayda Topoushian, a professor at VCU in the School of World Studies and in the Department of Political Science, and faculty advisor to the Armenian Students Association. She had invited the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble from William and Mary College to perform, led by Dr. Anne Rasmussen, director, an ethnomusicologist, who also soloed on her oud.

Most of the student musicians, whose diverse origins spanned from Asia to Africa had spent the last two to four years learning Middle Eastern musical instruments and studying music history and the repertoire in order to perform with this ensemble. This group was invited to perform in Oman and Morocco in 2014. Topoushian thanked the Ensemble for coming to VCU to perform for the guests from the Armenian community and the public. The music was incredible. Those students, majoring in subjects as diverse as pre-med and literature, performed Middle Eastern rhythms with heartfelt intention. The audience was pleased.

After a brief reception, internationally known resident genocide scholar and VCU political science professor Dr. Herbert Hirsch, introduced the visiting award-winning scholar of the Holocaust and Genocide and his esteemed colleague, Dr. Paul Bartrop, director of the Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University.. Bartrop, originally from Australia where he taught genocide studies and history for over 30 years at several universities, was conferred in 2008 with the title “Friend of the Armenian Community” by the Armenian National Committee of Melbourne Australia. He has earned several international awards for his work in Jewish and Genocide Studies. In 2011 Dr. Bartrop received a Distinguished Service Award from Melbourne’s Assyrian Community for his work in genocide awareness. He has also been a former visiting scholar at VCU in Genocide Studies.

Presenting the topic, “Remembering the Armenian Genocide after the Century of

“The Armenian Genocide is as relevant today as it was in the twentieth century, “ said Bartrop. “Why bother to remember these horrible events? Because they are still going on. The Armenian Genocide began in 1915, the Jewish Holocaust in 1942, Biafra in the 1970s, and in more recent times, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Burundi. Today there are ongoing conflicts resulting in unresolved genocides in Syria, Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic. Intolerance is still with us.”

“Genocide is a criminal act: not a theory, an idea, but a criminal act, subject to legal sanction due to its criminal nature. In 1948 the notion of genocide was criminalized by the United Nations. Genocide is also a human activity — a man-made catastrophe. It is a worse disaster than war. It speaks of human ambitions. Genocide ultimately addresses the question of how people perceive each other – superior, vibrant, perfect- so that the ‘surplus humans’ had to be sacrificed. Massive numbers of people died. Every day during the Armenian genocide, an average of 5,000 people died. For years, the boundaries of human civilization and destruction would never be the same.”

“A genocide of that magnitude does not come out of thin air. Planning is required to create the genocide and violence must be achieved, but always in a series of steps, not immediately. A systematic process was established: first, a policy of identifying the Armenians victims, then alienating them from their daily routines of work and life. Isolation was then created of whole communities, separating out the intellectuals and the military, leading to social and individual depression, and finally, removal of the groups for ‘extermination, annihilation, and destruction,” as described by the United Nations description of the genocide.

“All these steps and measures taken stemmed from the violent perpetration of the group of victims, so great and so irreconcilable that the only way out is total destruction.”

“The Ottoman Genocide was the first large-scale genocide. Human beings were targeted due to their very existence, by the forces of the Ottoman state acting together as one. Greeks and Assyrians were also massacred along with the Armenians. All three groups were subject to atrocities. They were victims of heat, starvation and exposure, left to die in the desert and other barren lands, and victims of murder and mass murders.”

However, the development of mass media in the last 65 years also revealed the truth of what happened at the beginning of World War I.

“The Armenian Genocide is now known all over the world. The Armenian Genocide is no longer forgotten. In fact, all over the world, after witnessing the huge displays of remembrance in major cities and national remembrances, people are asking, ‘Why didn’t we know about this before?’ Many are shocked by the history that escaped them during their school years. Many of the past genocides have had this problem for years after the atrocities took place. Genocide is not just a breach of history where only scholars speak to other scholars,” said Bartrop.

“In all cases- Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, Armenia, Syria- there is a human activity slowly taking place, committed by evil people. Evil people focus their energies toward evil acts more than good people toward good. Yet people can stop this human activity. Genocide is never inevitable.”

“How do we change the world? Change a corner of it.”

Dr. Bartrop held up Australia as an example. In 1948, Australia was the first to sign the UN Genocide Convention and to ratify its policies against genocide within their own country in 1949. They committed themselves to prevent Genocide.

Bartrop concluded his remarks by mentioning that we must share educational opportunities with our youth to give a measure of hope to succeeding generations. Teach them ethics, morality, and critical thinking skills. They are continually bombarded with simplistic mindless entertainment. He worries about this.

“There is absolutely a dulling of the human mind taking place.”

A candlelight vigil took place immediately after the talk, led by the Armenian students of VCU. Bartrop, Hirsch and Topoushian each held a lit candle while the Lord’s Prayer [Hayr Mer] was recited in Armenian by the VCU Armenian students, members of the Richmond Genocide Commemoration Committee, and other visitors.