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All Americans can see in Armenia a bit of themselves

Thousands of demonstrators march in the streets of Los Angeles, California, on Oct. 11, 2020, in opposition to Azerbaijan's military actions in the Armenian-run region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Thousands of demonstrators march in the streets of Los Angeles, California, on Oct. 11, 2020, in opposition to Azerbaijan's military actions in the Armenian-run region of Nagorno-Karabakh. | Armenian National Committee of America - Western Region

These days, you would be hard-pressed to find a topic that all Americans across the political spectrum would have the same view. But there is one that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike can view the same way: Armenia.

Earlier this year, President Biden referred to the massacre of nearly 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide, becoming the first President of the United States to meaningfully do so. This is no coincidence: In 2019, an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress passed resolutions in the same spirit, showing Armenians that the American people stood in solidarity in affirming history.

Which begs the question: Why? Why would a country roughly the size of Maine, halfway across the world, command such attention? With so many corners of the world crying out, why focus on Armenia?

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Cynics might argue the Armenian genocide controversy gets attention because it draws comparisons to the Holocaust while invoking it as an example of the world not caring about all heinous crimes equally. Or because it was perpetrated in effect by Turkey, a country whose threats are the reason most presidents have held back on using the term.

But I think there is something deeper at play, something instructive. Something that offers Americans, otherwise mired in bitter political infighting, a vision of a brighter future.

First, many Americans care about Armenia — and perhaps more of them should — because Americans of Armenian descent remain such an astoundingly dedicated and vocal diaspora, and one that contributes substantially to Americans’ everyday lives. From the arts and medicine to bio-tech and culture, Armenians have contributed magnificently. They represent the very idea of diaspora, with an intensity not often seen.

America may be a nation of immigrants, but most of them, a generation or two after settling in, are happy enough to relegate their heritage to a secondary role. Armenian-Americans, on the other hand, have a markedly different pattern of behavior. Rather than pursuing total assimilation, many believe that the two parts of their hyphenated identity strengthen each other and that having a deep passion for Armenia, makes one more, not less, likely to show an equally deep commitment to America.  American Jews, of course, experience a similar dynamic. That is perhaps why they, like Armenians, contributed so much to American life and culture despite their small numbers.

Armenians are also bound by religion. The world’s first Christian nation, Armenia remains strongly tethered to its faith. And while we remain committed to religious freedom, a core tenet of any liberal democracy, we continue to worship with fierce devotion. When the Pew Research Center surveyed citizens of all of Europe’s nations in 2018 about their faith, Armenia came second in devoutness, with 79 percent of respondents saying they believed in God with absolute certainty and 53 percent saying religion was very important in their lives.

Finally, there’s Armenia’s commitment to freedom. Under repeated attacks by one dictatorship, Azerbaijan, which is backed by another, Turkey, and the ISIS mercenaries it brought in, Armenia continues to stand for the West’s commitment to liberty. We don’t only speak of these values in the abstract; we pay for them in blood. We are fighting against the same forces that elsewhere target American and European soldiers and civilians, and foment violence and new genocide.

If the last two decades have taught us anything, it’s that any American attempt to remain cloistered and removed from the rest of the world is doomed to fail; whether we like it or not, ours is an interconnected reality, and evil unchecked in one corner of the world will soon spread to all others.

Seen in this light, then, it’s no wonder that Americans are united in their support for Armenia. A deep commitment to tradition, a strong passion for religion, and an unwavering dedication to liberty are all profoundly American values. Looking at Armenia, Americans see a story they find exhilaratingly familiar with their own origins: That of a young nation, fueled by faith and freedom, proud of its own sensibilities and refusing to be swallowed up by imperial forces that would subjugate it.

Let us hope, then, that recent statements from Washington aren’t the last of their kinds. There’s much about Armenia for Americans, especially Americans of faith, to discover. As so many Americans grapple with questions of identity, trying to figure out how to make sense of the many complicated parts of themselves, Armenians offer a lesson in how resilience can result from staying rooted in both tradition and modernity, in equal measure and at the same time.

In having one foot in the past, and the other in the future.

Archbishop Vicken Aykazian is Legate of the Armenian Diocese of America, former president of the National Council of Churches, and a member of the Central and Executive Committees of the World Council of Churches. 

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