Armenian Genocide a warning to resist religious persecution

At the T.B. Maston Lectures at Dallas Baptist University, Artyom Tonoyan, the grandson of Armenian Genocide survivors, described the massacre of his people.

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DALLAS—The genocide of Armenian Christians almost exactly 100 years ago provides a graphic reminder of evil and a call to vigilance, since Christians across the Middle East still suffer persecution, an expert on the atrocity told Dallas Baptist University audiences.

Artyom Tonoyan, the grandson of Armenian Genocide survivors, described the massacre of his people and current implications during the annual T.B. Maston Lectures at DBU Feb. 9.

armenian genocide victims425Child victims of the Armenian genocide in 1915. (Photo: Armenian Genocide Museum)Armenians, who populated part of modern Turkey, originated as a political entity between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, noted Tonoyan, a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities’ Institute for Global Studies and a research associate at East View Information Services in Minneapolis. He is a graduate of DBU and Baylor University.

Armenian society and culture rose and fell several times across the centuries, Tonoyan said. Their pilgrimage to Christianity began in the first century A.D., when the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus traveled to Asia Minor and told them about Jesus. They became the first to embrace Christianity as a state religion in 301 A.D., more than a decade before Rome. 

But with the rise of Islam, “Armenian civilization underwent an existential crisis,” he added. “Armenians were forced to islamize.”

The Ottoman Empire, which fully embraced Islam and dominated the region for most of the second millennia, discriminated against the Armenian Christians, he said. For example, Armenians could not own firearms and were barred from representation in court. They were not allowed to own horses or build a home taller than their Muslim neighbors’ houses.

Armenians singled out as ‘cancerous’

During the final throes of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and early 19th centuries, “Armenians were singled out as cancerous” and a “parasitic entity,” he said. Young Turkish leaders found the Armenians offensive because, despite political discrimination, the Armenians prospered financially and controlled the Ottoman economy.

Shortly after the Ottoman Empire entered World War I, on April 24, 1915, the empire launched a horrendous siege against its Armenian residents.

Authorities rounded up practically every Armenian leader—“poets, doctors, professors, composers, teachers”—in a purge that predated the Jewish Holocaust by decades. 

About 400,000 Armenian men were killed almost immediately. Elderly men, women and children were rounded up, their property confiscated, and forced on a “death march” into the same desert where the Islamic State dominates today, Tonoyan said. The marches pushed them to the geographical and political edges of the empire.

Five thousand Armenian villages were destroyed, he said. Hundreds of churches were confiscated and converted to mosques, stables and restaurants.

A family ‘cut down’

The Ottomans decimated the Armenian Christian population, he added. One and a half million Armenians were murdered. The Armenian population declined from 2.1 million before World War I, to 600,000 by 1918, to 50,000 today, he added. 

“Our own family was cut down,” Tonoyan reported. Ottomans forced his grandfather, then a boy, to watch the rape of his own mother and sister. The last image Tonoyan’s great-grandfather saw before his murder was the rape of his wife and daughter. 

Even though the Armenian Genocide occurred a century ago, Christians around the world, and particularly in the Middle East, are being persecuted today, he said. Some of the persecuting countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are strong U.S. allies.

“This is the greatest ethical dilemma facing the American Christian church,” he said. “What are we to do as Christians? Sit back and relax, … or do something?

“Christians are dying for their faith by the hundreds and thousands. I cannot keep silent.”

Pray for the persecuted

U.S. Christians should start by praying for their persecuted fellow Christians in hostile regions of the world, Tonoyan urged. He also called on Christians to insist their senators and representatives pay attention to persecution and demand change.

“Please, whatever you do, do not remain silent,” he pleaded. “Your brothers and sisters need you.”

T.B. Maston, namesake of the lecture series, taught Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth for much of the 20th century. The lectureship is sponsored by the T.B Maston Foundation and Dallas Baptist University.

To read a 2003 Baptist Standard feature on Tonoyan, click here.  

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