Your Eminences, Graces and Excellencies,
Distinguished members of religious communities,
Ladies and gentlemen,
On the occasion of this joyous gathering, may I take the opportunity to greet you all and wholeheartedly thank the organisers of this event, particularly the community of Sant’Egidio for their hard work and contribution to peace-making efforts throughout the world. Indeed, “Path of Peace,” the theme of this conference, is a timely topic, especially given the suffering of people, as a result of war, in the Middle East and the threat of military escalation in different parts of the world. Our Lord Jesus Christ says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt.5:9). The peacemakers are the Children of God. I reaffirm that those who consider themselves as sons and daughters of God and as Godly people have to be peacemakers. Saint Paul says “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace--as in all the congregations of the Lord's people.” (1 Cor.14:33). Yet, at the same time, the path of peacemakers is very narrow and difficult. Are we able to follow this path?
The many martyrs of the early Church were those people who experienced this path, as they preached the kingdom of peace and the kingdom of justice, where everyone was equal in the eyes of God. This was a way of life for them and they paid with their lives. For many Christians this was the way of martyrdom. Today, I would like to share with you some thoughts for reflection
As we know, martyrdom -- from the Greek word “martyros” (μάρτυς) -- has been a part of Christian witnessing since the early centuries of Christianity and has no visible rewards in this life. It is the ultimate sacrifice of upholding one’s faith, with absolute trust in Christ’s saving power. Christian martyrs did not threaten people; they were not suicide bombers nor did they claim the lives of others. They were ordinary Christians, followers of their Lord, whose main message was peace; peace on earth and in heaven, as we sing during the Divine Liturgy when exchanging the kiss of peace.
The martyrs are the members of the victorious Church we do not mourn their death but celebrate their lives. The Church venerates those who have such a faith because it shows the quality of faith and acts as an example to others. Though the Church has never urged martyrdom, the martyrs’ example of showing deep and unshakable faith is important. It is the faith that not only believes in the cross, but beyond that cross has hope for the victory of justice. Christian martyrs were sure that God would not abandon them in the darkness of death. As Yeghiche, an Armenian historian of the fifth century, who wrote about the history of the struggle of the Armenians against the Zoroastrian Persian king, writes: “the king summoned the Armenian soldiers and demanded that they convert. He started to mock them as if they worship a God who is weak and was simply crucified, as this is written in their writings. However, the solders responded to the king by urging him to open and continue reading the rest of the book where it speaks about Christ’s glorious Resurrection.”
Martyrdom has always been a distinctive feature of the Armenian story. It has taken place throughout Armenia’s whole history when the country became a battlefield between rival powers. In the canon of the Divine liturgy of the Armenian Church, there is a special petition for the brethren who were taken captive and are in captivity; many of them have become martyrs and their life and work has been recorded in the special liturgical book called the Synaxarion, which is read in Orthodox monasteries on a daily basis.
The martyrs are the witnesses of truth and justice. In the Gospel of St. Mark there is an insightful passage. When Jesus spoke to his disciples about his upcoming suffering and death, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But Jesus rebuked Peter saying. “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mak. 8:31-34). Commenting on this verse, eminent German theologian -- and himself a martyr -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, writes: “Jesus must, therefore, make it clear beyond all doubt that the “must” of suffering applies to his disciples no less than to himself. Just as Christ is Christ by virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion. Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.” The disciples knew that “they were sent out like sheep among wolves” (Mt. 10:16-25). The Christians had to stand before governors and kings for Christ’s sake and for the testimony to them and to the Gentiles. The suffering helped them to forward their testimonies.
Today we worship God and follow our beliefs in freedom. However, there are many people who still pay with their lives like the martyrs of the early Church. I am a descendant of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. In 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, the Armenian Church canonized 1.5 million Armenian Christians who were brutally killed for their Christian faith and identity during World War I. During the same period, some seven hundred thousand Syriac Christians and hundreds of thousand Greeks were killed, during a genocide, which the Syriacs call “Sayfo” (‘by the sword’). Today we take inspiration from the strength of their faith and their inflexible will: ignoring many kinds of torture and persecution, they chose death over earthly life. They could have avoided the persecutions by renouncing their faith and identity, but they chose death in Christ.
In May 2014, during the meeting of His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians and His Holiness Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome and Supreme Head of the Catholic Church at the Vatican, the Pope said: “In truth, the number of disciples who shed their blood for Christ during the tragic events of the last century is certainly greater than that of the martyrs of the first centuries, and in this martyrology, the children of the Armenian nation have a place of honour. The mystery of the Cross, precious to the memory of your people and depicted in the splendid stone crosses which adorn every corner of your land, has been lived as a direct participation in the chalice of the Passion by so many of your people. Their witness, at once tragic and great, must not be forgotten.”
Remembering them is a duty especially in our own times when the suffering of Christians and other communities in Iraq, Syria and in many other parts of the Middle East and the rest of the world, cry out for recognition and relief. The memory of Coptic Christians, who had their churches bombed and pilgrims shot dead earlier this year, even in a relatively peaceful Egypt, is still fresh in our minds and hearts. I will not even mention what has been going on in war-torn Syria and Iraq.
Since Apostolic times, Christian communities have lived in the Middle East. Now they are not only persecuted but rooted out of the region. The psychological and physical trauma of survivors is aggravated by their enormous economic losses. We can all see the unprecedented waves of emigration and refugees – and the slow emptying of Christians from the Middle East.
Regrettably, in the 21st century, we are witnessing the continuation of brutal killings, rape, torture, and dehumanisation of victims because of their religious faith. New crimes against humanity in the Middle East are being perpetrated with the same hatred and impunity as a century ago. As an Armenian clergyman, I have always contemplated whether the recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide by the international community would have stopped further genocides that we have seen in the last 100 years?
Even as we venerate the unwavering faith of the martyrs in the past and the present, we have an obligation to carry on their testimony and say never again to human suffering.
But let me end with the apostle John's instruction: You cannot love God if you do not have love towards your brother. He reminds us: “For if you do not love your brother whom you see, how can you love God, whom you do not see? For this commandment, we have from Him: that he who loves God, loves his brother also” (1 Jn 4:20-21).
We need to stand up for love, compassion and justice - without forgetting the diversity of faith communities in the Middle East. This means following the biblical injunction of loving God and then our neighbours. We should not forget that all communities are suffering from the violence in the region. To understand our pain, we must also understand theirs.
In conclusion, I would like to ask the intercession of the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide for peace in the world and pray to our Lord by saying:
The crowner of the saints, O Christ, you crown your saints and you fulfil the will of those who fear you, and with love and compassion, you care for your creatures. Hear us, O Lord, from your heavenly holiness through the intercession of the Holy Mother of God, and through the prayers of all your saints, and through the supplication of the Holy Martyrs who were killed during the Armenian Genocide for their faith and their fatherland. Hear us, O Lord, and have mercy, forgive, expiate, and remit our sins and grant peace to the world, especially to the countries in the Middle East and wherever the innocents are suffering. Make us worthy to thankfully glorify you with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, now and always, forever and ever. Amen