Armenians in Greater Boston applauded Pope Francis’ remarks on Sunday describing the mass killings of Armenians 100 years ago as the first genocide of the 20th century, leaving many hopeful that other world leaders will recognize the events that way.
“This is our moment,” said Nancy Kasarjian, 75, of Newton, who sits on the board of the Armenian Women’s Welfare Association Inc. in Jamaica Plain. “This 100th anniversary is about our last real effort to get people to acknowledge and understand what has happened.”
Ottoman Turks slaughtered an estimated 1.5 million Armenians around the period of World War I, according to historians. Many have recognized it as the first genocide of the 20th century, but Turkey and many other world leaders have not.
Having Francis utter the words at Mass on Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica brought some local Armenians to tears of joy.
“We are delighted that finally we have an important world leader, the highest religious leader, acknowledging the genocide,” said Houry Boyamian, 68, a principal at St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School in Watertown. “I am the daughter of a genocide survivor.”
Boyamian’s father, Karnig Panian, was only 5 five years old when everyone else in his family died in a refugee camp in the deserts of Syria, after a Turkish army swept into his Anatolian village of Gurin and abducted them in 1915.
Boyamian said he was taken to a Turkish camp where his captors tried to “Turkify” him, to strip him of his Armenian heritage, language, and name. Scores of Armenian and Kurdish orphans died in three years from hunger, harsh treatment, and disease.
Boyamian’s father was rescued four years later by American aid workers. Panian, who later became an educator in Lebanon and died in 1989, published a memoir documenting his life in a Turkish orphanage.
For Boyamian, the issue is quite personal.
“It shows that [Pope Francis] is a champion for human rights,” Boyamian said. “It gives us a lot of hope. We hope the entire world will recognize this as genocide and this way we might prevent future genocides.”
But Turkey has refused to call it genocide and says the number of those killed has been exaggerated. It has lobbied to stop countries and the Holy See from officially identifying the slaughter of Armenians as genocide.
While some European countries now call it genocide, others, including Italy and the United States, have avoided using the word.
Francis, who has a strong relationship with the Armenian community, said it was his responsibility to memorialize those who were slaughtered by Ottoman Turks.
Oshagan Choloyan, who serves as the Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy of the American Apostolic Church of America in New York City, said that his grandfather was crucified on a church during the bloodletting in 1915 and that the bones of countless men, women, and children remain buried several feet below the sand in the Syrian Desert.
“We as Christians believe the truth will set us free,” said Choloyan, praising Francis for taking a stand. “This goes for our government [too].”
Anthony Barsamian, the cochair of the Massachusetts 100th Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, was in Rome when Francis declared the massacre a genocide and said, “concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
Barsamian described the moment as “powerful” and said he and thousands prayed together in the sanctuary with holy leaders.
Francis made a similar declaration when he was a cardinal, said Stepan Piligian, who serves on the board of directors for the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.
“His support is very important in our quest to get world recognition,” Piligian said at an event Sunday at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington honoring Near East Relief for assisting Armenians 100 years ago. “If we don’t remember and acknowledge, we repeat.”
More important, Armenians are hopeful that the pope’s declaration will lead to vast recognition of the Armenian massacre as genocide and to eventual reparations.
“We are thinking about reparations for everything that we lost,” Boyamian said.
Carnie Armenian with the Armenian Youth Federation agreed.
“We’re not living in our country, but we one day hope to be reunited with it,” she said. “It’s always been a struggle, especially in the international community, to have the term genocide used to describe the atrocity. It’s a part of our dark history.”