The Great Loss of the Armenian Clergy During the Armenian Genocide

By Archbishop Papken Tcharian

The series of articles, which will be presented to our readers, are written by Archbishop Papken Tcharian, and translated by Tamar Topjian Der-Ohannessian.

The book, “The Great Loss of the Armenian Clergy during the Armenian Genocide” was published in 2009, by the generous donation of Mr. and Mrs. Levon and Tamar Der-Ohannessian.

The articles which will be featured in the coming days, are from the doctoral thesis of Archbishop Tcharian, and it is dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide.

In his thesis, Tcharian writes, “The enemy, in his cruelty, ruthless and unjust, did not discriminate. He slaughtered the students of Maghakia Ormanian, Yeghishe Tourian and Mekhitar Sepasdatsi, the promising seminarians of Armash and St. Ghazar, who were the true intellectual clergymen, and who shared the fate of their people and their parishes.”

 “The catastrophe of April 1915 was a fatal gash in the heart of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Despite of it all, however, the Armenian people and the Armenian Church experienced a new renaissance. … We do not hesitate to call all those clergymen who were massacred during the Genocide of April 1915 martyrs and saints.”



The Armenian clergyman, born and raised among the Armenian people, became an integral part of the society.  When our governmental and political establishments collapsed, the church became the highest authority.  After the fall of the Armenian government, the church gathered the people in its fold.  From amid our people, living and working under Turkish domination in Western Armenia and Cilicia, notable religious leaders emerged.  With their spiritual wealth and the intrinsic worth of their hearts, minds and souls, they were able to replace honorably the Armenian princes and aristocracy under the difficult conditions imposed on them by the Turkish regime.

The Armenian clergymen kept their dignity and distinction under the most critical situations.

In 1461 the Ottoman Empire recognized the Armenians of Turkish-Armenia as a religious community.  Their headquarters was the church of Constantinople and the religious and national leader was the patriarch.

According to Teotig, the two catholicossal sees of Sis and Aghtamar, and the two patriarchates of Constantinople and Jerusalem managed 72 dioceses with more than three thousand clergymen.

Arch. Maghakia Ormanian has mentioned around 2,200 active churches within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, in addition to the numerous ruined holy sites, pilgrimage sites and monasteries, which our devout and industrious people preserved with the constant presence of prayer and incense.

After the exile of the last king of Cilicia, Levon VI, and the fall of the Cilician Kingdom, all the religious, spiritual, educational, cultural, national and political aspirations of the people and their accomplishments bore the influence of the church.

The Armenian Church played a significant and crucial role in the most important events forging the future of the nation.  It produced priests who were inspired by the early Translators, and who spread Armenian literature and became champions of enlightenment, leading their people from darkness to light and from death to life.  There were linguists and philologists who preserved the old language as a ‘Golden Vessel’ but who became champions of the new one.  There were scientifically endowed characters, who established seminaries like Armash.  Some emerged to become eloquent preachers and teachers, who enhanced our church and braced the Armenian mind and soul with the miracle of the Word.  Others, with their administrative dexterity and innate wisdom, were able to lead and protect their communities against the bloodthirsty enemy.

The Armenian clergyman became pastor, teacher, preacher, dean, editor, author, poet and musician.  There were the likes of Varjabedian, Khrimian Hayrig, Tourian, Ormanian, Koushagian and Karekin I Hovsepiants who became great leaders for their people.

During the decades preceding the Genocide, the church of Turkish-Armenians experienced a renaissance.  It produced a devoted team of scientifically and administratively skilled clergymen.  The church gave birth to heroic priests who led national and social campaigns.

The First World War broke out in July 1914, and was followed by the gory events of April 24th 1915, a date which is carved on the dark pages of the history of mankind, and which is etched in bloody letters specifically in the heart, soul and consciousness of every single Armenian.

The Armenian people were subjected to the most appalling tragedy in history. They lost all the riches they had in Turkey, as well as their intellectuals, both lay and religious. More than one and a half million people were killed with unspeakable brutality.

The new barbarians of the century joined the ranks of the Tatars, Mongols and other savage nations.  In order to destroy anything that could favor the existence of the Armenian people, the bloodthirsty and murderous Turk devised and implemented the inhumane and as yet unheard of plan of exterminating the Armenians using the most brutal tactics.

World War I was the best opportunity for Turkey to implement its monstrous plan of decimating the Armenian people.  It was the best opportunity because Turkey felt that it would be exempt from all foreign protestation and intervention.  It had planned and chosen its position months, if not years ago.  Before the declaration of war, on June 17th, the German ambassador in Constantinople sent the following communiqué to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin:

Talaat has declared without reservations that the Sublime Porte has decided to utilize World War I to purge the country of its internal enemies, without any diplomatic intervention from foreign powers getting in its way.

This telegram shows that the plan for deportation and the extermination of the Armenians had been prepared a long time ago, and the perpetrators were waiting for a suitable time to put it into action.  For this heinous plan to succeed, the Turks decided to arrest the leaders of the communities first, and to eliminate them in various unknown and desolate corners of the country.

More than two million Armenians were massacred.  All of picturesque Western Armenia and wonderful Cilica were lost.  The hallowed Armenian land was snatched away.  All the achievements of the Armenian mind and genius were destroyed.  The numerous monasteries, centers of learning, the centuries-old spiritual monuments, the religious temples and the holy churches were all destroyed.

Along with the martyrs and the homes, thousands of manuscripts and printed volumes, which were the result of centuries of intellectual labor, were lost for good.

The Turkish-Armenians of all social classes were subjected to the tyrannical ruthlessness of the Turks.  The Turkish politics considered it necessary to decimate the clergymen, the partisan activists, the teachers, and all the leaders of a people, that is, all the teachers of belief, mind, word and power.   So, the Armenians and their unfortunate Spiritual Leader became refugees.  Everywhere, from the city centers to the provinces and villages, military courts were set up to try prelates, vicars, and celibate and married priests.  They tried to crush under false accusations the Armenian clergy, teachers and intellectuals.  They were the ones responsible for keeping the people alert and aware, and were thus punishable with the death penalty.

The Armenians of the provinces stayed on good terms with their arch-enemy, and gave no reason for grievances, yet, they were not spared the tragedy of the massacre.  Their young sons were conscripted into the army.  The oppressions they suffered were disregarded.  The skirmishes in the provinces between Kurds and Armenians and between Turks and Armenians were exploited to win over the Muslim population, with the evil intention of securing their collaboration in the subsequent implementation of the Genocide.

Had justice and law not ceased to exist, the mediation of the Armenian clergy and their efforts for peace would not have been in vain.  From the beginning, the clergy tried to guide the people to be discreet, and advised them to continue their good relations at least with the official headquarters.

The Turks of the provinces, however, unrestricted by the rules of law, teamed up with the Kurds and launched the implementation of their plan with unbelievable ferocity.  They killed everyone, from new-born babies to the elderly.  Armenians from all walks of life, age and class, and from all denominations and political parties paid with their lives in this bloodbath perpetrated by the Turks.

The suffering of the Armenian clergy, from bishops, prelates, and celibate and married priests all the way to the most humble servant of the church will be printed indelibly on the bloody pages of agony and torture of the Armenian people.

The catastrophe hit the Armenian Church, which at that time was experiencing a wonderful renaissance, and the blow given to the church and the clergy disrupted the structure of our nation.

Christ’s church, nurtured by the ideal of martyrdom and the mystery of the cross, has a vast history of martyrs chronicled in bloody letters on the white pages of the history of the Armenian people.

During the monstrous and brutal executions, the Armenian clerics, bishops and celibate and married priests were immortalized by their martyrdom.  They were subjected to the blows of the ruthless Turkish policemen.  They were targets of the fists, kicks and various insults from the Turks, just because they had committed the ‘sin’ of wearing the cleric’s robe on the road of deportation,  and which meant that they had committed the ‘crime’ of inspiring hope and faith in the hearts of the people and for letting them dream of perseverance.

According to Teotig,

Whereas they were mere officers in the house of God, they were made to enter the purgatory which was the terrible prison built by the Turk, and where they were subjected to horrific torture: branding of the soles with red-hot iron, pulling out of the nails, smashing their gums, hanging them naked and upside-down, driving wooden wedges through their fingers, digging out the eyes, nailing horseshoes to the feet and other untold and unimaginable punishments.

The Armenian cleric became the target of the despicable behavior of the Turkish officers and policemen.  Their annointed lips, which uttered the name of Jesus during times of suffering and pain, were coated with excrement.  They were given urine to wet their parched mouths and their beards were dragged across the floor… The Bible, crucifixes and other holy items were desecrated in front of them by the vilest methods.

The fate of the high ranking priests was particularly harsh.  They did not want to leave their parishes unattended, and were, therefore, exiled and martyred.  The first ones to be martyred were the priests from Armash, and particularly the generation of graduates from European universities, who were the bright innovators of the great ecclesiological and spiritual, as well as Armenological and artistic literature.

An example is V.  Rev. Fr. Kevork Tourian, the prelate of Broussa.  He was a graduate of the Seminary of Jerusalem (1892); he had a Masters of Theology degree from Harvard University in the United States, attended classes in Eastern Studies in Leipzig University, and studied Philosophy in Sorbonne University.  He was an expert in the Semetic, Hebrew, Ancient Syriac, Arabic and the classical (Latin and Greek) languages, in addition to English, French and German.  He was the author of two unpublished works: ‘Khorhertadedri Megnoutiune’ (The Exegesis of the Divine Book of Liturgy) and ‘Badmoutiun Pilisopayoutian’ (History of Philosophy).  He was a teacher of theology, philosophy and English in Armash Seminary.  Teotig has written:

The fate of this most serious and administratively bright member of the Armenian Clergy was the cruelest of deaths…

It is not possible to make a statistically accurate list of the martyred clergymen.  The list is very long, because even the smallest village had its church and its pastor.  The first severe and brutal blow was given to the clergy.  There were over a thousand unfortunate prelates and celibate and married priests who remained true to their beliefs and sacrificed themselves with their faithful people.  They forfeited their lives and shed their blood.  They were sacrificed on the altar of martyrdom, keeping the Christian reputation of the Armenian people pure and unadulterated.  They saw and felt the sweetness of the road to immortality through conscious death.

One cannot but admire and be proud of the valor and greatness of their souls, who refused everything false and corrupt, and who walked towards Golgotha carrying the cross on their shoulders.

As the conscripted officers of God, Armenian Catholic clergymen, Mekhitarist priests and Armenian Evangelical pastors were also victims of the Genocide.

The enemy, in his cruelty, ruthlessness and injustice, did not discriminate.  He slaughtered the students of Maghakia Ormanian, Yeghishe Tourian and Mekhitar Sepasdatsi, the promising seminarians of Armash and St. Ghazar, who were the true intellectual clergymen, and who shared the fate of their people and their parishes.

The graduates of Armash were the first victims of April 1915.  Armash Seminary suffered a huge and permanent loss.  The first large group of martyrs was the Armash clergy.  They were the generation of religious clerics who were inspired, taught and cultivated by Maghakia Ormanian and Yeghishé Tourian Srpazans, and who had great intellectual talent.  They died with pride and honor as leaders and pioneers.

According to Bishop Mesrob Naroyan, many of them can be singled out.  They were the ones who left a mark in the Armenian cultural life.  Below is a list of the immortalized and meritorious clergymen:

  1. Rev. Fr. Sahag Odabashian. Prelate of Broussa.  An industrious and fearless pastor.  He was the first casualty among all the lay and religious Armenian victims who died while on duty.

Bishop Sempad Saadetian.  Prelate of Garin.  A serious and kind clergyman.

Bishop Khosrov Behrigian.  Prelate of Gessaria.  Dedicated to his people and very talented.

  1. Rev. Fr. Ardavazt Kalenderian. Prelate of Edessa.  A sensitive and refined individual.
  2. Rev. Fr. Kevork Tourian. Prelate of Goudina.  Quiet, industrious and humble.
  3. Rev. Fr. Shavarsh Sahagian. Prelate of Yevtogia.  An enthusiastic and astute priest.
  4. Rev. Fr. Bsag Der Khorenian. Prelate of Kharpert.  A passionate and tireless worker.
  5. Rev. Fr. Kegham Tevekelian. Prelate of Kghi. A creative writer with a revolutionary constitution.
  6. Rev. Fr. Souren Kalemian. Prelate of Bitlis. A vivacious personality and a hard-worker.

Bishop Nerses Tanielian.  Prelate of Yozghat.  Has the spirit of a poet and a soft heart.  His writings will always keep their freshness and appeal.

The Armenian clergy became the last consolation, and the rescuing and helping hand for the faithful Armenian spirit in the threatening sandscape of the desert.  The words of the German eye-witness, Armin T. Wegner, were so moving, when he said:

When I went around in the camps of the refugees, and sat next to the starving and the dying under the tents, I felt their imploring hands in mine.  I heard the voices of their priests who prayed over the dead being taken to the grave on their last voyage.  They made me swear to protest on their behalf when I returned to Europe.

The cruel enemy, the Turk, and its offspring, the great criminal, Talaat, felt and saw the special and very important role of the Armenian clergy in the life of the Armenians.  So, the first blow, the first thrust of the knife was directed to the heart of the clergy.  On December 1st 1915 he sent a telegram to Aleppo where he said:

Despite the fact that it is necessary to try and exterminate the Armenian clergy, we hear that they are being sent to suspicious places like Syria and Jerusalem.  Permissiveness such as this is unforgivable negligence.  The place of exile for such troublemakers is extermination.  I instruct you to act accordingly.

Interior Minister, Talaat.

The Catastrophe of April was a fatal gash in the heart of the Armenian Apostolic Church.  Despite all this, however, the Armenian people and the Armenian Church experienced a new renaissance.  They advanced from darkness into light and from death to life.  Numerous churches and monasteries were destroyed, but the Armenians built new temples of worship and hallowed and sanctified churches.  They established new cultural and learning centers.  New books were published.  New clergymen were born to replace the martyred ones.  The message of Tourian Srpazan was so encouraging when, after the Tragedy of April, during his first ordination in Sts. Hagopiants Cathedral in Jerusalem he said: “I have taken my revenge.”  Vengeance was taken, and continues on, for the everlasting spirit of the Armenians.

We do not hesitate to call all those clergymen who were massacred during the Genocide in April 1915 martyrs and saints.  They were martyrs because they stayed steadfast in their faith and national pride.  When their spirits sprout again in our lives, like grains of wheat, when their unburied bones rest in the reliquaries of our hearts, and when their spirit is transferred to us to live again in our hearts and souls, then we too can say, ‘We have taken revenge.’


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