Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reflection on More Than 50 Million Victims

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In 2005, the 90th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide was remembered in Armenian Churches throughout the world. We attended one of our sister churches in Kenosha, Wisconsin (which is closer to Chicago than Madison).

There is no Armenian church in Madison. I was the only non-Armenian clergy at that service. Since then, Wisconsin became one of the states to recognize the genocide and most of our congressional representatives are on the record in recognition of the genocide.

This past month, we had the opportunity to meet with the director of a documentary about the genocide on the UW-Madison campus. It was sponsored by the Armenian Student Organization. More recently a 1999 article came to my attention, which brought the genocide into historic and religious context.

This article, or rather compilations of articles, prompted this reflection: "In Memory Of The 50 Million Victims Of The Orthodox Christian Holocaust"
Compiled in 1999 by Rev. Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes, it was written by Rev. Father Raphael Moore.

This is a well-written accounting (although undercounting, probably) of the 20th century toll on Orthodox Christians in Central Asia, Asia Minor and Eastern Europe. USSR and Ottoman Turks account for the bulk of destruction.

After reading the compilation, I was teary-eyed. I remembered becoming upset at history lessons in public schools glorifying the crusades - when the crusaders killed Orthodox Christians to "liberate" the treasures of Jerusalem and Constantinople.

But this ... this can only be rivaled by the martyr toll under the savage Roman emperors in the first centuries, especially the Coptic memory of Alexandrian martyrdom, which they honor as the first year of their calendar.

And yet, it's hard to imagine the Turkish exchange students, with whom I have had interfaith dialogue, involved in such a tragedy. I think part of the problem is that THESE individuals would never be involved in such a horrific event, and so they could not imagine any of their ancestors or relatives being involved either.

For those having been born on American soil, or any "free" soil, I can understand the disconnect. Even though I have ancestors (Eastern European and Native American) who suffered persecution, I also have ancestry to the "winners" of the American Revolution. So, America is distant in time and space from the persecution in other countries.

Closer to home, so many Americans grew up believing the only massacres that happened between Natives and Settlers were of white settlers. In fact, in Minnesota there are large monuments to some of these events that publicly document the exact numbers of men, women and children killed by "Indians."

Only in the last few decades has there been any recognition of the impact of genocidal policies that began with "Manifest Destiny" - although similar efforts can be seen by early European settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries.

There is a conscious effort in Minnesota to mark several sites with the Native accounts as well. Although from New England and Canada, I have ancestry on both sides and, in the 1990s, I needed to find inner reconciliation, crying for both sides. During that time, I put myself in situations where I could hear the vitriol of anti-white, anti-Christian Native Americans honestly spoken while being embraced and included as a brother, despite my blonde hair and blue eyes.

The compilation mentions the Greek remembrance of September 9, 1922 (destruction of Smyrna) as well as the April 24, 1915 (beginning of the systematic Armenian horror). Are there exchange memorial services? Do Armenians go to the Greek church and cry with them? Do the Greeks come to the Armenian church and cry with them? Do Orthodox of every ethnicity gather in memory of this torture and wounding to the body of Holy Church? I have seen some shared memorials, but nothing regular enough to show solidarity, honor. Are we so wrapped up in our own bereavement? Is it an ethnic culture only that should grieve and memorialize?

There is a spiritual wound to Holy Church that all Orthodox Christians can feel and grieve. Could this be a woundedness that permeates Orthodox churches in America and other Diaspora lands? Is this what holds Orthodox Christians apart – different moments of historic despair? Holding tight to the remnants of those left behind?

Perhaps, Orthodox Christians need a concerted effort to gather twice a year at each other's churches to cry and pray, to remember and heal. Maybe, out of our weakness we can be made strong.

I asked an old Russian monk about the KGB. He replied, "Even when they came to church, they were after information on who was there, not salvation of souls."

When I asked what he would do if a KGB agent repented, "I would hug and kiss him."

May the prayers of the martyrs give us strength, hope and peace.

Fr. John Brian

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