On April 24, President Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide (or in Twitter parlance, the #ArmenianGenocide) dominated national and international news and trended on social media throughout the day.
A bi-partisan chorus of American elected officials commented; the media commented; academics and analysts commented; the leading Greek American advocacy organizations all celebrated the decision; Greek Americans from coast to coast lauded the recognition on social media. The Armenians, after all, were intimately connected to the Greek people in so many ways, but most importantly— were also victims of this same heinous genocide.
Sadly, from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the normally active social media accounts of Archbishop Elpidophoros of America— there was silence.
No mention of the Armenian Genocide.
The Archbishop has never been shy about getting in front of human rights issues in the past, nor has he hesitated to share his thoughts regarding people of other faiths and nationalities with whom we Greeks share commonalities on momentous anniversaries.
From Black Lives Matter to Stop Asian Hate— even the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd— the Archbishop has been active and present on our newsfeeds, reminding us of the Church’s various positions. He has commemorated MLK Day, Bloody Sunday, Women’s History Month as well as numerous Jewish and Muslim holidays.
The Archbishop clearly understands the effect social media can have– as demonstrated by his Digital Light initiative in the midst of COVID last Easter that we covered extensively.
His digital sophistication and aggressive and strategic public messaging make the Archbishop’s silence on April 24 even more curious.
Because of his outspokenness on civil rights, Archbishop Elpidophoros has sometimes been compared to Archbishop Iakovos. One can understand why he would welcome the comparison– the Archbishop Iakovos era is still considered somewhat of a “golden age” for our community, with a thriving national church, and a national Greek American community that widely accepted Iakovos as its leader.
But Iakovos’ political courage went beyond civil rights and touched upon the national issues that are near and dear to our community’s top activists.
Iakovos’ role in rallying the community after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus and of working with the late Andy Athens to help form what became UHAC is legendary. Of course, Iakovos had served in the US more than three decades and had been Archbishop for 15 years when Turkey invaded Cyprus, so he knew the American political system AND what issues moved his Greek American constituents far better than one could expect a new Archbishop whose time in the US has been short (and limited by COVID).
We should expect that there will be a learning curve when it comes to the Archbishop’s political and social media messaging. And thus, it was a welcome development to see His Eminence speak at Pontian Federation of America event commemorating the Pontian Genocide on May 19.
But his Tweet about the event was as puzzling as his silence on April 24:
“Today we pause to remember those whose lives and cultures were cut short – the Greeks of Pontos and Asia Minor, the Armenians, [Assyrians], and all those who presence vanished as Empires dissolved. Recognizing the sins of the past is the way forward to a better future for all.”
This tweet reads as a very careful attempt to split hairs. But by avoiding the use of the word “genocide”, it appeases Turkey. It is not consistent with the two organizations he appeared with that very day– the Pan-Pontian Federation of America and Canada and AHEPA, both of which urged the recognition of the Greek Genocide and both of which use the word “genocide” loudly.
It is also inconsistent with the efforts of the Hellenic American Leadership Council and the National Hellenic Students Association which on that very day announced a publication contest meant to encourage academic work by Greek American students on the genocide.
It won’t satisfy the Armenians– who chaffed at stronger statements that used words like “massacres” or ”Meds Yeghern” (the Armenian word for genocide) because they didn’t include the term “genocide.”
In fact, the Armenian National Committee of America took note of the Archbishop’s silence on April 24. In an emailed statement to The Pappas Post, Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Council of America, thanked counterparts in the Greek American community, while shedding light on Ankara to use Orthodox Churches under its stranglehold to Turkey’s advantage.
“Armenian Americans couldn’t be more grateful for the rock-solid support of our Greek American brothers and sisters in our fight to end Turkey’s long standing gag-rule against honest American remembrance of Turkey’s genocide of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and other Christian nations,” Hamparian said.
“Sadly, we see that Ankara continues to arm-twist Christian leaders- among them the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey and even abroad- in a twisted attempt to enlist Christian spiritual leaders in their shameful efforts to roll back this recognition and obstruct the justice owed our peoples for these still unpunished crimes.”
At a time when the community’s genocide recognition initiatives include a research center (the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center), a documentary (Lethal Nationalism: Genocide of the Greeks), and the inclusion of Greek Genocide recognition advocates on Genocide education commissions, someone aspiring to the leadership status of Archbishop Iakovos cannot avoid using the term Genocide— loudly and without fear of repercussions from Turkey.
Of course, we must all be painfully sensitive to the threats faced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Orthodox Christian community that is struggling to stay alive in Turkey. Still, although we should have loyalty to our Greek identity, more importantly we mustn’t forget our American identity.
As an unprecedented bipartisan consensus on Turkey has emerged in the United States, one that labels the country as an authoritarian regime that egregiously violates human rights and religious freedom, that is dishonest about its “sins of the past” and unpunished crimes, and that threatens the strategic interests of the United States, how can we be silent?
We cannot be sure what veiled threats, suggestions or messages the new Turkish Ambassador has made to the Archbishop during his recent visits with him. We do know, however, that propagandists at the Turkish Foreign Ministry (one former Consul General of Turkey in particular named Umut Acar) eagerly and enthusiastically uses images of the Archbishop and the Turkish Ambassador to try and show a different reality that exists between our community’s political allies and the Church.
After an announcement by two members of Congress who introduced legislation chastising Turkey’s record on religious freedom, Acar posted photos of Archbishop Elpidophoros and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew with the Turkish president and attempted to use this as evidence that there was no religious oppression in a Tweet.
So, if Archbishop Elpidophoros in fact aspires to a Iakovian model of leadership– of becoming an “ethnarch” of the Greek American community, he must realize that Iakovos was an American, first and foremost. He never shied away from calling out Turkey’s abuses and long history of aggression– and genocide– against Armenian, Greek and other Christian minorities in Anatolia.
It could be that Elpidophoros faces more intense threats from Turkey than Iakovos did and has no choice but to take a back seat to the difficult job of managing Turley’s powerful lobby in Washington DC, as well as existential threats to the Patriarchate.
In that case, perhaps it is time to contemplate whether the Greek American community even needs another “Archbishop Iakovos” type of leader when it comes to political leadership.
After all, most of the community’s top advocacy organizations – the American Hellenic Institute, the Hellenic American Leadership Council, the American Hellenic Council, PSEKA – didn’t even exist when Iakovos first assumed that role (only AHEPA did).
The Archbishop and the Church have the luxury of letting far better developed Greek-American civic organizations take the lead on the issues that may make Turkey upset.
But one thing is certain, if the Church as an institution– and the Archbishop as its leader– want to assume the mantle of the leadership of the Greek American community, they can no longer avoid fully acknowledging truth and using proper terminology when it comes to the genocide of millions of Christians at the hands of the Ottomans.
We should take heed of Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel’s famous words.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”
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