A nod to dark days, a moment in the sun

October 21, 2007
Source: The New York Times

By Joseph V. Tirella

BEFORE services, after passing through the golden doors of the Armenian Church of the Holy Martyrs in Bayside, Queens, parishioners often pause briefly in front of a glass case. The case contains fragments of bones of Armenians who died at the hands of Ottoman Turks during World War I.

Some of the parishioners chant along with the hymns being sung from the altar; others pray silently for the dead. Last Sunday, a young girl with long black hair wearing a white dress gently ran her hand over the glass, as if touching the past.

The past was the main topic of conversation last week at the church, a beige brick structure in a small but vibrant Armenian community. A few days earlier in Washington, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had voted to recommend that Congress recognize as genocide the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians early in the last century.
Although the chances that Congress would do so seemed to dim as the week proceeded, in the face of vehement opposition by the Turkish government, Armenians are gratified that a long-nursed anger is at least on the table.

“It still affects us,” Hrair Ghazarian, a 51-year-old parishioner, said of the killings. Mr. Ghazarian, an electrical engineer who lives across the street from the church, chatted excitedly with another parishioner about Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, who had discussed the resolution on television.

"She’s going to bring it before the entire House," said Mr. Ghazarian, a stocky man who speaks as much with his hands as his voice. Then, as cars whizzed by outside on the nearby Long Island Expressway, the two men headed toward their pews.
Discussion of possible Congressional action continued after the services, when about 50 church members gathered in the wood-paneled auditorium for coffee, bagels and homemade cookies. The Very Rev. Vahan Hovhanessian offered a prayer of thanks "in celebration of the resolution and what it means to us."

Despite the general euphoria, some among the congregation recalled deep sorrow, among them Marie Gemdzian, who is 81.

"I’m happy but not happy," she said in halting English. "Too many people are dead. My mother’s family — how many died? Aunts, uncles...." With the help of Alice Keurian, her daughter, Mrs. Gemdzian began counting her lost relatives on her hands. She soon ran out of fingers.

As people tossed out their paper cups and pushed in their folding chairs, one young parishioner spoke of the future.

"The genocide is a big part of how we define ourselves," said a Columbia freshman named Markrete Krikorian. "As a culture, I think we need to let it go." But she added that until the event is "recognized by the people who did the genocide to us, then we can’t move on."