by Lela Gilbert
April 23, 2021
Saturday, April 24 marks Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. And, reportedly, U.S. President Joe Biden is preparing to formally acknowledge that the systematic murder and deportation of millions of Armenia’s Christians by the Ottoman Empire more than a century ago was, in fact, genocide.
At the time of this writing, no official acknowledgement has occurred. And if Biden makes that declaration, he won’t be the first world leader to do so.
During a Sunday sermon in April 2015, Pope Francis referred to the 1915 Turkish mass killings of Armenians as the “first genocide of the 20th century.” Unsurprisingly, this papal declaration instantly flared into a diplomatic uproar. It absolutely infuriated Turkey’s Islamist President Tayyip Erdogan, who “warned” the Pope against repeating his “mistaken” statement.
Pope Francis was not mistaken. Those early 20th century massacres cost 1.5 million Armenian Christians their lives, along with another million Assyrian and Greek believers. Thanks to the Pope’s pronouncement and Erdogan’s outrage, the rest of the world was once again effectively reminded of the genocide’s terrors.
The tragic story began on April 24, 1915, when Turkish authorities arrested hundreds of Armenian professors, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and other elites in Constantinople (now Istanbul). These revered members of the community were jailed, tortured, and hastily massacred.
After killing the most highly educated and influential men in the community, the Turks began house-to-house searches. Ostensibly they were looking for weapons, claiming that the Christians had armed themselves for a revolution. Since, in those days, most Turkish citizens owned rifles or handguns for hunting and self-defense, of course the Turks would find arms in Armenian homes. And this served as sufficient pretext for the government to arrest enormous numbers of Armenian men who were subsequently beaten, tortured, and murdered.
The family members who survived these home invasions—mostly women, children, the ill, and the elderly—were forced to embark upon what has been described as a “concentration camp on foot.” They were told they would be “relocated.” Instead, they were herded like animals with whips and cudgels. And at gunpoint, they were sent on a death march to nowhere.
The captives were provided with little or no food or water. Old people and babies were the first to die. Women were openly raped; mothers were gripped with insanity, helplessly watching their little ones suffer and succumb; more than a few took their own lives. Eyewitness accounts and photographs remain today, and they are heart wrenching. Corpses littered the roads; nude women were crucified; dozens of bodies floated in rivers.
On Jan. 5, 2015, Raffi Khatchadourian published a personal essay in The New Yorker about his Armenian grandfather, who somehow survived the Armenian Genocide. He described the brutality:
Whenever one of them lagged behind, a gendarme would beat her with the butt of his rifle, throwing her on her face till she rose terrified and rejoined her companions. If one lagged from sickness, she was either abandoned, alone in the wilderness, without help or comfort, to be a prey to wild beasts, or a gendarme ended her life by a bullet.
Some Turks claim that World War II-era Armenian Christians had aligned themselves with Russia and were therefore a threat to Turkish security. But although the excuse that Armenian Christians were “enemies of the Turkish State” is still bandied about, German historian Michael Hesemann has carefully documented that it was not only a genocide of Armenians, but also an extermination of the Christian element in the Ottoman Empire. It was an ethnic and religious cleansing.
In fact, the Armenian Genocide has been described as a jihad in numerous accounts. Armenian women were even told they would be spared if they would convert to Islam. It is noteworthy that at the genocide’s beginning, on November 13, 1914, a call to jihad—a holy war against Christian “infidels”—was officially announced by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V Resad. The carnage began just days later.
And in the eyes of some Armenians, it has never stopped. I learned in October 2020—during a conversation with a friend in Yerevan—that Azerbaijan’s ongoing invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh was perceived by many Armenian Christians as the continuation of that same Islamist jihad against them.
Last October, the combined armies of Azerbaijan and Turkey, supported by Syrian mercenaries, ferociously attacked Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian enclave. Historic churches, ancient carved cross-stones called khachkars, monasteries, and other Christian shrines and properties were defaced, demolished, and dispossessed. Meanwhile, an estimated 100,000 refugees frantically fled across Armenia’s border.
It is a well-known story but worth repeating that in 1939, as he planned his “Final Solution” to rid the world of Jews, Adolf Hitler notoriously said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Hitler was very wrong indeed. The world certainly will remember that annihilation on Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. Countless voices will speak out in remembrance of Turkey’s murdered Christian population. Will one of those voices be that of the President of the United States, Joe Biden?
If Biden has chosen to be the first U.S. President to officially declare that the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians was historically a genocide, he will most certainly deserve our thanks and applause.