Canonization of the Genocide Victims

Window view of the Armenian Church, Vol. I, No. 3, January 1990

Canonization of the Genocide Victims
Are We Ready?

by Hratch Tchilingirian

"Since next year is the 75th anniversary of the Genocide, we
propose that the preparatory activities continue for the
canonization of our victims."
--Joint Communique of Catholicoi Vazken I
and Karekin II
April 29, 1989, Holy Etchmiadzin

This year is the 75th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide
and it seems that the "preparatory activities" are still
continuing... So far the victims of the Genocide have not
been canonized. There are several problems with the issue of
canonizing the victims of the Genocide. However, before
going into the discussion of these problems, let us briefly
define what "canonization" is.

Canonization is the final declaration by the head of the
Church, whereby the soul of a person or a group of persons
are declared to be in heaven. After the declaration, the
veneration of the person(s) as a saint is not only permitted,
but ordered for the entire Church. Normally, the process of
canonization is conducted by the Synod of Bishops in the
Orthodox Church and the Sacred Congregation of Rites in
the Roman Catholic Church, afterwards, the final declaration
is made by the Patriarch or by the Supreme Pontiff.
Canonization as a formal process and declaration started in
the tenth century. In the primitive Church, martyrs and later
confessors were the first to be publicly venerated by the
faithful. Until the tenth century, individuals among the
faithful who had lead exemplary and "venerable" lives were
accepted as "saints" without formal canonization by the


The saints are an integral part of the Tradition of the ancient
Churches. "The doctrine of the Church comes alive in the
lives of the true believers, the saints. The saints are those
who literally share the holiness of God. 'Be holy, for I your
God am holy.' (Leviticus 11:44; I Peter 1:16) The lives of
the saints bear witness to the authenticity and truth of the
Christian gospel, the sure gift of God's holiness to men."

When a person is canonized, certain honors are conferred
upon that individual:

1) The name of the saint is listed among the other saints of
the church and thus included in the liturgical calendar of the

2) The name of the new saint is invoked in public prayers.

3) Churches are dedicated to God in the saint's memory.

4) Festive days are designated to celebrate his/her memory.

5) The name of the saint is mentioned in the Divine Liturgy
on the day of the celebration of his/her memory and
sometimes special hymns are sung to mention the virtuous
deeds of the saint.

6) Pictorial or iconographical representations are made in
which the saint is surrounded by a heavenly light of glory.

7) When available, the relics of the saint is enclosed in
precious or decorated vessels and are publicly honored.


The practical problem of canonizing the victims of the
Armenian Genocide, or for that matter any person, stems
from the fact that the Synod of Bishops of the Armenian
Church, which has the authority to undertake such a task, has
not consistently met. If fact, it has been over two decades
that the Synod of the Armenian Church has not convened.
The purpose and function of the Synod-- the assembly of all
bishops of the Armenian Church-- is to regulate doctrines or
disciplines in the Church. The decrees of the Synod are held
to possess the highest authority which the Church can give.
The Synod of the Armenian Church is summoned by the
Catholicos and its decrees are confirmed by him. Obviously,
the schism in the Armenian Church between Etchmiadzin
and Antelias possess another problem. Will the Synod of
each Catholicate meet separately or will a Synod of Bishops
encompass the entire Armenian Church, both Etchmiadzin
and Antelias? If it will be a Synod for the entire Church, the
logistics of such a Synod still remain to be unspecified and
ultimately, it might be dependent on the unity of the
Armenian Church.

Furthermore, there is no set method or formula in the
Armenian Church by which a person is determined to be a
saint. The Armenian Church has not canonized any person
for the past 500 years. The last person who was declared a
saint was St. Gregory of Datev (1346-1410), who was an
eminent theologian, teacher and an abbot, under whose
instruction and training great leaders flourished in the
Armenian Church. (It is beyond the scope of this article to
discuss the implications of this 500 year gap in recognizing
the true saints of the Armenian Church. Archbishop Shnork
Kalustian in his book "Armenian Saints" mentions over 25
individuals who should have been canonized, but are not so
far recognized as saints).

The absence of a concrete methodology for canonization and
the overwhelming task of documenting the lives and cases of
the victims of the Genocide make it virtually impossible to
declare them saints in the proper sense of the term. For
instance, in the Roman Catholic Church, the initial step of
the process is a formal inquiry, instituted by the bishop of the
diocese wherein the person lived. This inquiry is
accomplished by a tribunal of three judges, a notary, and the
"promoter of the faith," more commonly called the "devil's
advocate." Following the report of the bishop to Rome, the
Sacred Congregation opens the process, enlarging on the
previous inquiries, with a promoter of the faith again
presenting the flaws or weak points in the evidence. Only
thereafter does the "apostolic process," as it is called,
authorizes further investigation and the long process of
gathering evidence and determining the worthiness for
beatification first, and then canonization. Again, for all
practical purposes, we cannot canonize 1.5 million
Armenians en masse, without documenting or knowing some
of the ways and means of their martyrdom. Otherwise, their
canonization would be exactly what it seems to be:
bestowing them the ultimate honor and recognition without
recognizing their true witness and worthiness for sainthood.

Theologically, once the victims of the Genocide are
canonized, the Armenian Church will be put under a
dogmatic imperative, i.e., they are no longer victims, but
victors of Christ. Once the victims of the Genocide are
canonized, we can no longer hold Hokehankists (requiem
services) to mourn their death, to which we have accustomed
ourselves. Instead, we will celebrate the Divine Liturgy
invoking their names, asking for their intercession and
celebrate their victory over death, in and through Christ.
Once the victims of the Genocide are canonized, we can no
longer hold candle light vigils. The mournful, dark
atmosphere of commemorations of the Genocide will have to
be changed into a "festive" glorious atmosphere. The victims
are no longer victims, but saints who live in the glory of God,
i.e., those who have joined God in an endless sharing of a
divine life beyond all corruption and have found the true life
with God. Hence, the question is whether Armenians are
willing to see themselves as witness to the Death and
Resurrection of Christ--for whom hundreds of thousands of
Armenians gave their lives--rather than perpetually identify
themselves as the victim.

Politically, ever since the 50th anniversary of the Genocide,
Armenians have collectively demanding justice for the 1.5
million victims of the Genocide from the Turks in particular
and the world in general. Canonization would de facto
resolve the problem of justice. It would be preposterous to
demand justice for saints any longer. Canonization might be
detrimental to the political agenda of the Armenian political
mechanism. It would mean "forgive and forget" and engage
in a "dialogue" with a new perspective. Furthermore, the
territorial question with Turkey might also be complicated.
As it is customary with saints, does it mean that the places
where Armenians were martyred would be considered
shrines or an Armenian "holy land." Still, there are many
indirect political implications which need to be carefully

The proposal of the two Catholicoi to canonize the victims of
the Genocide should be examined in light of the complexities
of the issue. Since the details of their proposal are not
available--so far they have not been public--and based on the
state of events in the Armenian Church, the proposal seems
to serve as an added "glitter" to the observance of the 75th
anniversary of the Genocide. Seventy five years have passed
and the world seems to "ignore" the victims of the Genocide,
thus, in our frustration, the ultimate honor that we can render
our victims is to declare them "saints". We would do
injustice to our victims if we canonize them without
recognizing their martyrdom for Christ and its impact on our
lives individually and on our nation collectively. The saints
are canonized primarily for the faithful. Declaring the
victims as saints is not rewarding them the "medal of honor,"
but it is to follow their example in obtaining the "heavenly
crown of glory." It is to perpetuate their witness to Christ
through our own mission and evangelism in this world.

Hratch Tchilingirian
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