Religion, or specifically, Christianity, because according to the Gallop Poll, over 93% of Americans believe in some sort of higher power, has always been an important aspect of my life as well as that of my family. But there was a time in my family’s history when that faith was tested to a degree than Christians in America may never fully appreciate. “In 1915, over 1.5 million Armenian Christians were murdered by Islamic Fundamentalist Turks.” (Johnson, 1985 p. 231) And there was little that could be done to stop it.
World War One had given the Turkish government the ability to carry out their plan on the religious minority within the Ottoman Empire. The rest of the world had their eyes turned to the war itself as it engulfed most of the Western Hemisphere as well as other parts of the world. My great grandfather, as a young boy of ten, witnessed the murder of his parents and brother and barely escaped with his life.
He died when I was only a young child so I never got to fully appreciate him in a way an adult can through the understandings of their experiences, but I still carry with me, the gratitude for his sacrifices in coming over to America so that his descendents would have a better life as well as the fact that his also brought along his faith in Christianity and taught his father who would then teach my father, the values of strongly held convictions and that this world is not a favorable place for Christians. More Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than the past 19 centuries combined. 1.5 million Christians in the 20th century were my ancestors. And even though I am 50% Irish, it is the religious convictions as well as this pain from the genocide to which I had a direct connection to with my relationship with my great grandfather, than I identify myself so closely with.
The Armenian Genocide was carried out in the years during the First World War. Over 1.5 million Armenians were killed at the hands of the Turks, the dominant people with the dominant religion: Islam, within the Ottoman Empire. (Meriwether, 1997) The word genocide refers to the organized killing of a people in the objective of ending their collective existence. This was the case with the Armenian Genocide and it has always served as a form of frustration that the Armenian Genocide did not receive as much coverage then, as well as how, as other human tragedies of a lesser proportion. When the victims of the genocide are remembered, when they remembered at all, reside in the stories of the people who lived it and those that received those stories and made sure that they did not die in the future by way of apathy from the world. In 310AD, Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as their official religion. The adoption established both a Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches by 451 AD. Christianity would flourish in the region until it was conquered by the Muslims and made as part of the Ottoman Empire in 1451 AD.
The Ottoman Empire ruled according to Islamic Law and as a result, all non Muslims and Jews had to pay extra taxes and were mistreated by their oppressors for centuries after that. Also, a portion of the children from Armenian Christian, specifically, Eastern Orthodox, had to transfer to the sultan, their male children which would then be forced to convert to Islam and made to become “Janissaries” or fierce warriors for the cause of Islam and never to be seen again by their parents. The situation of oppression that was levied upon the Armenian Christians seemed to subside while under the direct rule of Abdul Mejid I who carried out reforms and helped to increase some of the natural rights to the Armenians, only to have them taken away under his son Abdul Mejid II who stopped the reforms and carried out mass killings of the Armenians. This was called the Hamidian Massacres which took place from 1895-1896 and claimed the lives of thousands of innocent Armenians who had to die for their faith in Jesus Christ. This would only set the stage for a much larger persecution against Armenian Christians by their Turkish oppressors. `
The Armenians became isolated as the only Christian minority in the Ottoman Empire. The Armenians spoke of an independence from the Turks whereas the Turks had a competing vision for the future that required the total submission of the Christians or that they would meet their death. The ways in which the Armenians were killed are unspeakable. Women and children were abducted and horribly slaughtered. The Armenian people that were not killed were deported from the lands that many had occupied for a thousand years. On April 24th, the world remembers the genocide as a day of remembrance. That date is picked because on April 24th 1915, hundreds of Armenian leaders were murdered by the Turks after being summoned for what may have appeared to have been the desire to start peace talks.(Meriwether, 1997) But that would not be the case and as a result, it was thought that the Armenians would be brought into submission to the Turks form of Islam.
The genocide began in 1915 when the Ottoman Turks accused the Christian Armenians of allying with the Russians who it was assumed, had designs to colonize the Muslim world. This erroneous opinion helped to validate in the minds of the Muslim leaders, to deal with the Armenians as their sworn enemy. Many historians now regard as the events between 1915 and 1923 in Armenia as the state sponsored killings by the Turks. However, Turkish authorities at the time, attributed the high number of deaths as a result of civil war, disease and famine. But in reality, that was not the case and many Armenians chose death or were killed immediately as part of a massive genocide imposed on them by Muslim extremists rather than deny Jesus as their Lord and Savior. This is a reality that I cannot fully grasp nor can anyone living in America can as well who has lived their entire life here. It is amazing that anyone, when faced with such a decision, would choose what they have not seen in person and not chose their own life.
This faith, of which my father’s side is Eastern Orthodox, defines itself as the third largest Christian community after the Roman Catholics and Protestants. There is an estimate of 220 million people who claim Eastern Orthodox as their version of Christianity.(Meriwether, 1997) Eastern Orthodox believes in the Trinity; that God is made up of three separate and equal forms: the father, the son and the Holy Ghost and that one’s belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ and that belief in him is the only way in which one can enter heaven, serves as the basis of our beliefs. We also believe, unlike the Desists, that God takes a unique interest in the lives of his people as He works in their lives and desires the best for them. Also, that the resurrection serves as the central theme to the faith. Believing in anything other than the divinity of Jesus, makes the entire reason for faith in Jesus void. The belief that Jesus is the son of God is what identifies us as Christians. Eastern Orthodox also believe in the Resurrection; the belief that after being crucified, Jesus rose from the dead and eventually ascended into heaven; a faith that is central to Christendom all over the world.
When my family came to America, they bought along this strong faith in Jesus and in the Bible. Their assimilation into American society became harder and harder as America seemed to ignore her Christian roots and become more secular. But being Armenian, as my father’s side is, we were not going to submit to the growing humanistic aspect that America has become in the 20th century. If over 1.5 million of my ancestors would not give into the secular nature of America, with pop culture and immediate gratification being valued above all, it was shown rather than said, that my family was not going to partake in those things. In that manner, my family did not completely assimilate into American culture. But as far as identifying themselves as Americans, they were proud to do so and my family became fiercely proud of both their Armenian-American Heritage. They were able to bring together the best of both worlds and enjoy a fruitful life that was centered on faith.
Due to all of the trials and troubles that my ancestors have gone through in Armenian because they were Armenian and because they were Christians, it makes it impossible for myself personally, to turn my back on that sacrifices. If my father’s ancestors had been from Ireland as were my mothers, I would still have been a Christian. The Ireland of old used to really stress the importance of one having a personal relationship with Jesus. But my father would not have been as serious. There was religious persecution in Ireland since 1972, there have been a little less than 3,000 people killed for their religious belief. This is not to minimize their sacrifice but such numbers do not compare to 1.5 million in Armenia. In America, Christians cannot fathom that level of persecution. Christians in America are routinely made fun of in television shows, movies and in the press. Movies that break box office records, yet are ignored at the award shows and a Christian may get made fun of for going to church instead of staying up late on Saturday to go to the bars etc… But that is really minor. In the 20th century, more Christians have been martyred for their faith than in the past nineteen centuries combined. This is something that I specifically try to remember since there is no context in the United States of America that would come close to that. It is because of the Armenian genocide that I get up and go to church on days that I might otherwise wish to remain in bed. It is because of the genocide that I read my Bible or tithe even when I might personally feel, at that time, that the time and money would be used for something more entertaining. I only knew my great grandfather for the first few years of my life but I later look back and can see the pain that was within those eyes. As a young boy, he had seen members of his family killed because of their faith and ethnicity and I felt that I needed to honor that pain. I feel strongly that I would have still been a Christian if I were not Armenian and did not have the history of the genocide but since I am, the genocide reminds me of how my ancestors before me, died for their faith in alarming numbers. As a result, the least that I can do is not be lazy in my faith.
My family upbringing helps me stay strong in my faith. My father and mother both viewed how important not just religion, but Christianity was to my family. My mother is Catholic and my father Eastern orthodox. And even though there are differences in these two aspects of Christianity, the common beliefs in Jesus Christ were what was important and stressed. Issues in which my parents disagreed, were always discussed in a civil tongue as they had both seen the destructive forces that can come with religious intolerance and they vowed that no form of that would be accepted in their house. So as a result, I was able to respect other’s religious beliefs as long as they did not serve as an impediment to the peace and well being of their fellow human beings.
But on Sundays, it was just understood that the morning would be spent in church. When I was younger and not able to grasp the entire concept of submission to God as well as the Armenian genocide, I only saw church as something that was boring and impeded on my weekend schedule of rest, watching movies and playing with my friends. I was especially sad when my friends were all going to go to Wisconsin Dells during the summer one year and they were all leaving on Sunday morning. I badly wanted to go with all of my friends and had been dreaming of the trip since Christmas. I begged my father to let me go but he said that Sundays were for church and that if they were willing to wait, I would be allowed to go once church was over at 12:30pm. But the parents that were responsible for driving, said that they could not wait. I did not understand what extra hours were going to do in causing us to be late but for whatever reason, they would not wait. I pleaded this to my father and believed that my friends could not wait those two hours for any reason in the world. But my father seemed to believe that an extra two hours were not going to make a difference and believed, as it would later become apparent, that the drivers were put off by my religious convictions, or rather the convictions that my father had, and would not make the concession to wait for me. My father, despite my pleading, would not let me skip church and it was shaping up to be one of the saddest days in my life. As I got older, I realized that if I had missed the trip, all would not have been lost as I had once thought. But as the Scriptures say: “When I was a child, I spoke, thought and understood like a child, but when I became an adult, I put away childish things.” (Bible, 1st Cor. 13:11) I would have told my father that I hated him that day but now am glad that he made that stand. He did not preach to me or give me a long winded and hypocritical sermon. He was not that way. But a man of actions more than words, he simply showed that Sunday was for the Lord and Sunday mornings were for worship.
But the story is not a sad one and my father is not an unreasonable man. After church, I met my family at the car and was very sad and did not even want to talk to my father as I knew that my friends were on their way to spend a week at the Wisconsin Dells. And it as not that my father had given into my temper tantrum, but once we got home and my mother and brother got out of the car, I sat in the back seat as I pouted. But the pouting did not last long as my father told me that he was actually going to drive me the entire way to Wisconsin Dells by himself. We had received the sheet of information from the parents stating the phone number of the hotel and where they would be staying. Cell phones were still not in wide use and neither we nor my friend’s parents had them. So I changed my clothes, got something to eat and retrieved my suitcase which had been packed for the last week, out from under my bed and my dad and I made the trip up to Wisconsin Dells. And everything worked out in the end. Not only did I get there in time, the trip up there, just my father and myself, was one of the fondest memories of my life.
Many times, one’s religious faith has a great deal more influence when he/she lives it out rather than preaching which many times, the receiver will automatically shut his ears to whatever one is saying. This was the case for me when I was young. And perhaps my father could sense that about me and that is why he did not give an hour lecture as to why I could not go on the trip. But it was an example that has stood with me all of these years and it is something that I look forward to passing down to my children. This is what religion meant to my family. Neither my mother, nor my father preached to my brother and me, nor did they do the same to any of my friends or theirs. That to me, is the purest form of Christianity that I can think of and it is one that at least for myself, is what I would have responded to more. I don’t know if my father knew that but I’m glad that it worked. That story, better than any other, testifies to the role of faith that my parents had.
My Armenian roots and identity comes from my father and his family as well as the experiences of my ancestors on my father’s side. “The Irish Potato Famine, which killed nearly a million and send another 1.5 million to the United States and Canada, served as the defining moment in Irish history.” (Smith, 1995 p. 21) However, I cannot identify myself with that event to the same degree that I can with the Armenian Genocide. Both happened many years before I was born but with the case of the Irish famine, I was never able to actually meet anyone who was directly affected by it. With the Armenian Genocide, my great grandfather was ten years old when the Genocide started and lived until I was a small child. So I was able to see and get to know a primary source, a real individual that had been affected by the Armenian Genocide. And my father talked about it a great deal during the last years of his life. He did not describe to me all of the details since it was seen to have been too graphic for me to fully understand but one night while my family was in the kitchen talking and I could not sleep, sat at the edge of the stairs which led up to my room on the 2nd floor of the house, and listened to my great grandfather cry as he explained what had happened to his parents and his sister as the Turks barged into his home one night and killed everyone in his family except for himself. It was not until I was a teenager and started to study for myself, what had happened, did I fully realize the gravity to which my great grandfather and his country suffered. I only wish that I had been old enough to comfort him or to be able to comprehend his pain. But at that time, all I saw was a very old but tough and huge man who sometimes cried for what appeared to me to be no reason at all.
That is now I identify my Armenian roots: by my family and how they act. According to the 2000 census, there were less than 400,000 people identified themselves as having Armenian or partial Armenian ethnicity. So the way in which I was able to identify my roots were by family. The family reunions and the stories of their homes in Armenia was what I based my identify upon. We were not outgoing people that needed attention nor were we ones that complained about our circumstance. Only rarely did my parents show painful emotion and the only time my great grandfather did, a man who had more reason than anybody that I had ever know, keep the pain to himself. We were taught to work hard, not to complain, to help out our fellow man and to always keep God first in our lives, no matter what the obstacle might have been. That is what identifies myself with my Armenian culture. But whether it was my father’s quiet refusal to allow me to skip church or my great grandfather’s countrymen and women and my ancestors refusing to submit their faith to the ugliness of the world, my family didn’t just talk their faith, they lived it. And that made all the difference to me.
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Burns, R (1999) The History of New York. New York: PBS Video.
Smith, C. (1995) The Great Hunger. New York: Penguin Press.
CITE YOUR GREAT GRANDFATHER HERE. (HIS NAME)
Johnson, T. (1985) The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book Press
Merriwether, M. (1997) The Armenian Genocide: New York: PBS Video.
Cite this Religion and Christianity in American Society
Religion and Christianity in American Society. (2016, Jul 21). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/religion-and-christianity-in-american-society/