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"Our life and our death are with our neighbour”: Commemorating a genocide, affirming our common humanity

“Our life and our death are with our neighbour” – this is a spiritual affirmation from the Christian tradition which we owe to Saint Anthony, a monk from Egypt of the third and fourth century. This is our common legacy from the early years of Armenia and its Christian history. To be human is to be part of the one humanity. From the first day of our life we depend on others. Today we are reminded in a dramatic way that belonging to one another is our destiny, for better or for worse. The gift of life together includes our responsibility for one another. This is a matter of being human, created by God for fellowship and unity.

23 April 2015

Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary WCC

Yerevan, Armenia, 23 April 2015

Your Excellency President Serzh Sargsyan,

Rt. Honorable Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan,

Your Holinesses Karekin II,

Your Holiness Aram,

Your Holinesses, Your Beatitudes, Your Eminences, Your Excellences,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

“Our life and our death are with our neighbour” – this is a spiritual affirmation from the Christian tradition which we owe to Saint Anthony, a monk from Egypt of the third and fourth century. This is our common legacy from the early years of Armenia and its Christian history. To be human is to be part of the one humanity. From the first day of our life we depend on others. Today we are reminded in a dramatic way that belonging to one another is our destiny, for better or for worse. The gift of life together includes our responsibility for one another. This is a matter of being human, created by God for fellowship and unity.

“Our life and our death are with our neighbour”. Those who deny or attack the life and dignity of a sister or brother undermine and destroy the humanity of both the victim and themselves. Today we are made conscious of this mutually destructive reality. We remember together and pay due respect to innocent victims. We also remember together that these inhuman actions really happened.  Both are steps that can and should lead to reconciliation and healing of memories based in the hostilities of the past. We need, as one humanity, both justice and peace.

During the 1979 Session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the World Council of Churches called publicly for the recognition by the UN of the Armenian Genocide.  In 1983, the 6th Assembly of the WCC in Vancouver supported this request, emphasizing that “the silence of the world community and deliberate efforts to deny even historical facts that have been consistent sources of anguish and growing despair to the Armenian people, the Armenian churches and many others.” The WCC assembly in Busan in the Republic of Korea in 2013 addressed this 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, asking the member churches to observe it in appropriate ways. As we are here today, many memorial services are happening around the world.

The member churches of the World Council of Churches have seen and learned about all these tragic events of the genocide in 1915 and 1916 which we commemorate today, not least from their Armenian sisters and brothers. We have also learnt from the victims of other horrible crimes against humanity that were committed during the 20th century, which is sometimes called the most violent century of human history. We remember today first of all the 1.5 million victims, Armenian children, women and men. We remember also the other hundreds of thousands of Christians of Aramean, Chaldean, Assyrian, Syrian and Greek descent, and all others – many of them from other living faiths such as the Muslim faith - who died in that time of brutal violence and war.  We also continue to remember all those who were murdered in the holocaust against the Jewish people, and other genocides thereafter. The victims were all human beings with their dignity, their families and their hopes, created in the image and the likeness of God. They are never forgotten by God.

“Our life and our death is with our neighbour” - this saying of Saint Anthony is very significant, even today. We need to remind ourselves of it in the face of attacks on human rights, brutal violence and murder in so many places of the world today. People suffer from economically, politically, ethnically or religiously motivated conflicts which often lead to violence, even criminal terrorist attacks and war. We are geographically close to the unfathomable tragedies going on in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq, as we sit in this place.

Today the memory of the victims moves us to take pro-active measures to stop all attacks against humanity and our dignity. This we have to do together as peoples and nations, as communities of different faiths or religious dependence, or of no faith. Together we must use the opportunities and instruments of international law and cooperation we have for learning, knowing and naming the truth, for reconciliation, for justice and for peace. It is possible to act together to prevent and to protect.

I have met with Armenians who have immediately described the survival of their family by mentioning one name after I told about my Norwegian origin. Fridtjof Nansen, as High Commissionaire for Refugees under the League of Nations in the early 1920s, in offering Armenians a new passport, called the nations of the world to respect the human rights of Armenians. He was responding to what he had seen and heard about the realities of what happened, naming it and addressing it. I do regret that many governments, including my own, when they commemorate on this anniversary the atrocities that happened, still are hesitating to express our common moral sense by naming what happened a genocide.

Pursuing just peace, the World Council of Churches has very actively participated in the UN debate on “humanitarian intervention” which was sparked by the Rwandan genocide. The WCC put special emphasis on “prevention” as a core element of the obligation of all states to protect the lives and dignity of all people. Protection becomes necessary only when prevention fails.

This day is a moment of truth. Let us all use it as an opportunity to build a future together where no people, no group of ethnic or religious identity, or any other common identification, should experience again these kinds of brutality we commemorate today. We need the courage to say no to what destroys our dignity. Even more we need the courage to say yes to our common humanity. Today the victims of the Armenian genocide call and help us to do so. All Christian churches recently celebrated the resurrection of Christ. In the joyful Easter period, we remember in our prayers the victims of the genocide, participating in the death and resurrection of Christ. In our creeds we confess our hope, as the one community of saints, of forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead to eternal life. Injustice, violence, sin and death will not have the last word.