Yom HaShoah and the 100th anniversary of Armenian genocide

Last Thursday, local Jews in both Cherry Hill and Wildwood invited the wider public to join them for the annual Holocaust Remembrance Observance known as Yom HaShoah. Yom HaShoah commemorates the lives and heroism of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945.

Shoah, which means catastrophe or utter destruction in Hebrew, refers to the atrocities that were committed against Jews by the Nazis during World War II. Shoah is another phrase for Holocaust, which comes from the Greek word meaning “sacrifice by fire.”

This year’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah came the same week as the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. In the year 1915, leaders of the Turkish government set in motion a plan to expel and massacre Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. At the beginning of the genocide against the Armenians, most historians believe there were about 2 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire prior to the massacre. By the early 1920s, once the killings and deportations were over, some 1.5 million of Turkey’s Armenians were dead, and many more were violently forced out of the country.

The world should never forget the atrocities that were inflicted upon the Armenians. The beginning of the Armenian genocide saw the arresting and execution of several hundred Armenian intellectuals. This was followed by the arrest and forced death marches of ordinary Armenians through the Mesopotamian desert without food or water. Some marchers were stripped naked and forced to walk under the scorching sun until they died of exposure. Anyone who slowed down or tried to rest was shot to death.

A group known as the “Young Turks” created a “Special Organization,” which in turn organized “killing squads” or “butcher battalions” to carry out what their leaders called, “the liquidation of the Christian elements.” These killers, often made up of convicted murderers and other ex-convicts, drowned people in rivers, threw them off cliffs, crucified them and burned them alive. Women were raped or forced into slavery. Turkish Muslims moved into the homes of deported Christian Armenians and seized all their property.

Pope Francis joined His Holiness Karekin II, spiritual leader of the Armenian Church, at an Armenian rite Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacres. During his homily he infuriated Turkish leaders by calling the killings “genocide.” Turkey claims the killings were just casualties of war. However, most historians call this event genocide, a premeditated and systematic campaign to exterminate an entire people. And Pope Francis said clearly, “in the past century, our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies. The first, which is widely considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century,’ struck your own Armenian people.”

While condemning the Armenian genocide, Pope Francis used the moment to also condemn the killing, deportations and persecutions of Christians by the murderers in the Islamic State and the global indifference to their suffering.

Pope Francis also deftly connected the suffering of this first genocide of the past century to the genocides orchestrated by the Nazis and the Soviets under Stalin, while also condemning “other mass killings, like those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia.” He also remembered that “Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks” were also killed in the bloodshed a century ago.

This is why our Jewish friends remind the world, not only on Yom HaShoah, that we must never forget! Not to condemn loudly, no matter who takes offence, only helps the cause of maniacal despots who would repeat such heinous crimes against others. In fact, Adolf Hitler once said, in an attempt to assure his own henchmen busy about the diabolical work of the annihilation of the Jews in Europe, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” When good people remain silent evil flourishes.

May the souls of so many innocent souls killed by the mad hatred of despotic leaders in the past century, as well as this new century, rest in the peace of our God.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.