By Hagop Vartivarian
“The youth are the firmest foundation stone of our national reconstruction and ascent.” – Hrachya Setrakian
ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, N.J. – Hrachya Setrakian (191601991) was one of the compassionate youth of the post-Genocide era who experienced the deportations and knew the pain of living in a foreign environment. These youth had to adjust to local conditions quickly, while preserving the Armenian heritage they brought with them despite the difficulties involved in providing a good upbringing. They lived with the ambiguity of keeping a second homeland in their hearts.
One of the fundamental obligations of Setrakian’s generation was to prudently and quietly establish the foundations of Armenian national life in exile by assuring the necessary conditions for earning a living, maintaining schools, churches, and other institutions despite straitened financial circumstances. Tireless leadership was needed in the camps of the refugees and the orphanages of the Middle East.
The present Lebanese-Armenian community took root in the 1920s, though a very small and prosperous community did exist prior to the Genocide. The only Armenian institutions which initially existed were St. Nshan Monastery, under the aegis of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the monastery of the Armenian Catholics in Zmmar. The first chapter of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party was established in Lebanon in 1923, thanks to Nerses Shirinian and a few others through great sacrifice.
Hrachya Setrakian’s Youth
Hrachya Setrakian was born in Yozgat in 1916. His father was Khosrov Effendi Setrakian. As a result of the deportations, he ended up in the Beirut Armenian-populated neighborhood of la Quarantaine, popularly known as Karantina, where his father worked as a tax collector. He received his education at St. Krikor the Illuminator Academy of the Jesuit fathers in Eshrefiye, and then continued to Saint Joseph University’s law department, run again by Jesuits, and graduated in 1940 to become a lawyer.
While still at the university, he became a member of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU)’s Armenian Youth Association (AYA). He soon became a member of the executive of its Antranig Chapter in the Nahr neighborhood. This became the start of his lifelong interest in Armenian youth movements.
The AGBU created the AYA in 1931 under the patronage of the Catholicosate of Cilicia for the large numbers of youth needing education and aid. They previously were cared for by the Near East Relief. The ADL played an important role in both the AGBU and AYA.
Mihran Damadian, Hmayeag Kranian and Dr. Hagop Topjian were among the initiators of the AYA. Damadian was the chairman of the AGBU’s Beirut chapter, which was founded in 1925. The Beirut chapter primarily was involved in supporting the Sisvan Orphanage, workshop and shelter, which were brought to Beirut in 1922 with 439 orphans.
Setrakian remained an active member of the AYA’s Administrative Body, and beginning in 1947 served a member and then vice chairman of the central executive. During these twenty-five years of office, he often served as the president of the AYA Representative Assemblies of Syria and Lebanon and the consultative assemblies of the local Administrative Bodies. It was in this period that the AGBU-AYA Alex Manoogian Youth Center was constructed in the heart of Beirut.
He was the chief founder of the AYA Armenian University Students Union in 1940. He developed its bylaws and served as its chairman until 1943. Many of the students in Lebanon’s two universities, American and French, were part of this group. The leadership of Professor Parounag Tovmasian led many to join the ADL, including Hrachya Setrakian.
Setrakian placed great importance on the scout movement as part of the AYA. He also became one of the founders of Lebanon’s Scouts Du Liban, and in 1939 was appointed as the leader of Lebanon’s Armenian scout federation.
Service through the AGBU
In 1943 he became a member of the AGBU. For many years he served as secretary for the AGBU Regional Committee of Lebanon, until 1988. He was an important link in the good relations between the ADL and the AGBU. During the sad days of the Lebanese Civil War, he was able to use his connections with the state to keep AGBU schools, clubs and buildings safe in both the west and the east of Beirut. He always carefully made sure the AGBU bylaws were followed, and took on the task of reforming the internal bylaws.
During the first visit of AGBU President Alex Manoogian to Lebanon, Setrakian organized the program, including visits to state and Armenian notables. Setrakian received a certificate of AGBU veteran in 1964.
Participation in the Repatriation Movement
In 1946, Setrakian as a representative of the ADL became the First Secretary of Lebanon’s Central Committee of Repatriation, and the next year vice president of this committee during a period when the president, Devedjian, had already repatriated. Repatriation from 1946 to 1948 helped save Armenia’s status as a republic in the Soviet Union by bolstering its population, which has been depleted as a result of the sacrifices of World War II.
Around 100,000 Armenians emigrated from the Middle East and Greece to Soviet Armenia. Setrakian played a major role in solving the legal matters, helping arrange state documents, and keeping in close touch with the representative of Soviet Armenia, Asdvadzadurian, as well as other Soviet embassy officials. His labors lasted three years.
Part of Lebanon’s Armenian Diocesan Life
Setrakian became a member of the Armenian National Council in 1946 and served as president of the meetings of Syria and Lebanon’s Armenian National Councils. For a period of time, he was also a member of the National Provincial and Civil Councils of the Lebanese Armenian Diocese.
The Cold war between the West and the Soviet Union exacerbated a crisis in the Armenian Church, especially after the death of Catholicos Karekin I Hovsepiants of Cilicia. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, siding with the West in the Cold War, took advantage of the opportunity to gain control of the Cilician See and helped placed Zareh I Payaslian as catholicos. This led to the exclusion of ADL, AGBU and Hnchagian Party members from positions of diocesan leadership in Lebanon, including Hrachya Setrakian.
Leading the ADL
Barely 20 years old, Setrakian joined the ADL. He served many years, until 1970, as chairman of the ADL’s District Committee of Lebanon. In 1946, the ADL Eighth General Convention took place in Cairo but continued in Paris. It was decided in 1947 that the ADL Central Committee be moved from Cairo to Beirut. Setrakian at that time was part of the party’s supreme body, chaired by Professor Tovmasian, and henceforth participated in all of the highest level meetings.
Setrakian was the ADL candidate in the 1951 Lebanese state parliamentary elections but the intervention of the executive of the state due to Cold War politics did not permit him to win. Setrakian became a frequent contributor on Armenian political and social issues to the ADL Beirut daily newspaper Zartonk, and the ADL press in general, as well as the AGBU magazine Khosnag.
Setrakian was able to keep good relations not only with the wealthy donor class and high officials, but also with simple workers and the middle class. He had the same close and respectful relations with the ADL intellectuals from Dort Yol at the Vahan Tekeyan School, the fighters of the ADL Yegarian Chapter, the members of the ADL Zartonk Chapter of Beirut, and the students at the Portukalian university chapter. It was enough for a party member to call him “Maitre” even without a name to be understood.
After Professor Tovmasian’s resignation, Setrakian became the chairman of the ADL Central Committee in 1982, when he was elected by the ADL 16th General Convention in Larnaca, Cyprus. The ADL’s headquarters were moved to Montreal from 1985 to 1991, and Dr. Arshavir Gundjian served as co-chairman. Setrakian resigned in 1991 from party duties due to health reasons and returned to Beirut with his wife Marlen. Setrakian had married relatively late in life.
Setrakian lived through the difficult days of the Lebanese Civil War, providing leadership to the Armenian community. He also lived through the internal crisis of the ADL, which erupted in 1995 after the 19th General Representative Assembly in Larnaca, but continued to provide an example of respect for rules and law to the new leadership. The internal struggle continued until the 2001 22nd General Convention in Athens. The representatives of the two sides reached an agreement in Paris.
In 1996, the ADL 20th Extraordinary Convention in Bikfaya, Lebanon, elected Setrakian as honorary chairman of the ADL.
The long Lebanese Civil War led him to despair, and so he temporarily moved to Montreal, where his brother Hmayeag’s family lived.
Founder of the Tekeyan Cultural Association
In 1947 Setrakian became one of the founders of the Tekeyan Cultural Association (TCA), and its first chairman. After this, for more than 30 years, that post was occupied by Professor Tovmasian, while Setrakian became secretary of the Founders’ Body. The TCA remains as one of the two major cultural organizations of the Armenian diaspora.
Setrakian was a leader in the founding of the Vahan Tekeyan School in Beirut in 1951, and was registered with the state as its proprietor. Aside from providing education, this school became a shelter for the surrounding Armenians during the days of Lebanese internal fighting, and a center for Armenian defense fighters.
Death and Funeral
His health began to fade, and on January 16, 1997 he passed away in Beirut. ADL Central Committee Chairman Hagop Kassardjian, who represented the ADL as a deputy in the Lebanese Parliament, organized his funeral at the state level. Many high level officials, deputies, religious leaders, representatives of Armenian organizations, and ADL members were present. AGBU Central Board secretary Berge Setrakian was also present.
Hrachya had no children, and he considered his nephew Berge as his true heir. His Armenian ideological direction and dedication were inculcated in his nephew, who became the president of the AGBU.
TCA and AYA together celebrated Hrachya Setrakian’s golden anniversary on December 11, 1994 in Beirut. The Honorary Anniversary Committee, headed by Alex Manoogian, was the patron of the event.
(Translated from the Armenian)