Among the huge crowds that gathered during Pope Francis’ trip to the United States in September, Armenian-Americans had a presence in all three cities on his itinerary — and it was to thank him for earlier this year recognizing the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Turks as the “first genocide of the 20th century,” according to Haykaram Nahapetyan, Washington correspondent for the Public TV Company of Armenia.
Back in April, at a Mass commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide at St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope said that humanity had lived through “three massive and unprecedented tragedies the past century: the first, which is generally considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century,'” struck the Armenian people. The other two 20th-century tragedies, the pope said, were those “perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism.”
Addressing Armenian Christians, the pope said that recalling “that tragic event, that immense and senseless slaughter, which your forebears cruelly endured,” was necessary and “indeed a duty” to honor their memory “because wherever memory does not exist, it means that evil still keeps the wound open.”
“Concealing or denying evil is like letting a wound keep bleeding without treating it,” he said.
Turkey’s top government officials criticized the pope’s use of the term “genocide” in reference to the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians during their forced evacuation by Ottoman Turks in 1915-18. In his remarks Pope Francis cited a 2001 joint statement by St. John Paul II and the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Turkey rejects the accusation of genocide, and the government called its ambassador to the Holy See back to Turkey “for consultations” the same day Pope Francis made his statement.
Nahapetyan said that Armenians in the U.S. felt that after what pope did to recognize the genocide, a public expression of gratitude was necessary — especially during the pontiff’s U.S. trip.
In Washington on Capitol Hill, as Pope Francis delivered his speech to a joint session of Congress, a group of Armenians gathered with “thank you” signs, according to Nahapetyan. In New York, during the pope’s evening prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armenian-Americans gathered to thank him.
And in Pennsylvania, St Mark’s Armenian Catholic Church in Wynnewood was decorated with Vatican flags in September, and The New York Times featured a photo of an Armenian nun, Sister Emma Moussayan, principal of the Armenian Sisters Academy in Radnor, who attended the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.
In addition, Nahapetyan said, three electronic billboards were raised in and around Philadelphia with a message of gratitude on display; ads with similar content were placed in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. The local Armenian Genocide Centennial Commemorative Committee raised the funds and “worked with the billboard vendor to choose locations the pope would hopefully see — like by the airport,” Kim Yacoubian, the committee’s co-chair, told Nahapetyan.
Pennsylvania is home to the largest community of Armenian Catholics on the East Coast, noted Nahapetyan.
Arthur Martirosyan, a representative of the Armenian National Committee of America Eastern Region told Nahapetyan: “Pope Francis should be a role model for other world leaders.”
A special billboard also went up in Foxboro, Massachusetts, to pay tribute to the words of the pope.
These displays are part of the Armenian Genocide Awareness Billboard Campaign, sponsored by Peace of Art Inc., a nonprofit educational organization based in Massachusetts. The group’s founding president is artist Daniel Varoujan Hejinian. An earlier billboard went up in Sharon, Massachusetts — in June — thanking the pope.
Launched in January, the yearlong campaign is placing “100 billboards for 100 years of genocide” throughout the United States and Canada in honor of the victims of all genocides of the last 100 years.