Among worldwide Armenian genocide observances, Lebanon's is first among equals

The thump of the bass drum reverberated through the neighborhood.

It was the cue for the dozens of young scouts in two-tone uniforms to take their positions in a procession through Beirut’s Christian quarter to the Patriarchate of the Armenian Catholic Church.

The solemn march Monday afternoon marked the 102nd anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide, which began in 1915 and resulted in the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians.

Turkey has long disputed that a genocide took place, arguing that the killings can’t be separated from the historical context of global upheaval during World War I, and that many Turks also were killed. But most historians outside Turkey describe an orchestrated effort of ethnic cleansing by the Ottoman Turkish government that meets the definition of genocide.

Once the procession reached the church, the scouts set wreaths of red and white flowers around an ornate column topped by a cross that stood at the center of a courtyard as a monument to the genocide.

Nearby, a few of the hardier boys raised poles with the Armenian blue, orange and red flag fluttering alongside Lebanon's flag. Some of their classmates’ faces turned a shade of scarlet as they blew trumpets raised to the sky.

“Wherever there are Armenians, there will be this ceremony.… It’s a duty. They come show respect and appreciation,” said Aram Karadaghlian, 31, one of the event’s organizers.

The stick on his jacket lapel featured an infinity sign around the number 102 underlined by a phrase in elegant Armenian script which declared: “On the verge of the new century, but with the same commitment as the previous one.”

It was a reference to the continuing struggle to keep the memory of the genocide alive, he said. “It’s about remembrance, because we don't forget.”

His sentiment was echoed by Mehran Najarian, a 44-year old businessman who had brought his family to the ceremony.

“In this country we have the privilege to be able to express ourselves,” he said. “Each community does this here.”

“I’m the third generation of Armenians here. And as you can see the fourth is standing in front of you,” he said, turning to his 10-year-old son, Sarkis.

Although there were commemorations for this event all over the world, said Samvel Mkrtchyan, Armenia’s ambassador to Lebanon, “the Armenian community in Lebanon is the most important.”

Lebanon’s more than 100,000 Armenians “are the descendants of those who perished in the beginning of the 20th century,” he said.

“Those orphans and impoverished families found refuge in Lebanon and they grew from the ashes and rebuilt their lives and became one its most important communities.”

Later, as night fell on the city, thousands descended on the downtown district to Martyrs’ Square, which had been named to remember Lebanese who had been executed there during Ottoman rule in 1931.

Rows of plastic chairs had been laid out before a stage ringed by powerful lights and a large screen displaying “100+2.”

Looking on were a dozen or so leather-clad members of the Armenian Brigade Motorcycle Club.

They would soon provide a high-revving escort for the march, tailing the marches out of the square with the motorcycles that now stood arrayed in a neat row to the side, their chrome gleaming from the spotlights.

“Today it's a duty on every Armenian to join this event for the recognition for the Armenian genocide,” said the leader of the club, Danny Dervishian, whose nickname, “The Godfather,” was stitched on his vest

Lebanese Armenian officials and politicians addressed the crowd.

One official, Annie Yepremian, gave a defiant speech in Armenian remarking on the global nature of the proceedings.

The anniversary was being marked “from Beirut to Paris, from Aleppo to New York, from Tehran to London,” said Yepremian.

A representative of Michel Aoun, the country’s newly appointed president, described the day as both “sad and brilliant.”

“It is sad because of the genocide against an alive, great, free people, the Armenians of Lebanon and the world,” he said.

But it was brilliant because of the achievements of the Lebanese Armenians in the country.

“A salute from the president,” he told the crowd to polite applause.

Scouts gather at the Patriarchate of Beirut's Armenian Catholic Church to mark the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian genocide. (Nabih Bulos / Los Angeles Times)

Marchers gather to commemorate 102nd anniversary of Armenian genocide

Anna Nenedzhyan and her 10-year-old son, John Nenedzhyan, were both eager to begin the 1.4-mile walk to the Turkish consulate.

As they stood underneath a tree to shield their faces from the sun, John gripped an Armenian flag and wore a black shirt with a message calling for justice.

“I enjoy being out here because it shows the world that people are recognizing the Armenian genocide,” the boy said.

They were among tens of thousands of protesters who marched to the Turkish consulate on Wilshire Boulevard on Monday afternoon to commemorate the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

As the sea of protesters began arriving outside the Turkish consulate, the energy grew.

“Fight, fight till the end,” some shouted in Armenian.

“Shame on Turkey,” others said.

Young children sat atop their parents’ shoulders as they listened to speeches from California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and L.A. Unified President Steve Zimmer.

People from across generations showed up, many noting that this year’s protest felt more emotional than previous years because of the political debate over immigration.

Throughout the day some called for reparations, while others sought acknowledgment that a crime was committed. The Turkish government disputes that a genocide took place.

“Until justice is served we will continue marching,” said Nora Hovsepian, chair of the Western Region of the Armenian National Committee of America.

The peaceful demonstration was briefly disrupted when participants were confronted by a small group of counter-protesters who came holding a Turkish flag.

Five people were arrested by late afternoon, the Los Angeles Police Department said.

Earlier Monday, President Trump made headlines when he, like his predecessors in the White House, declined to call the mass killings of Armenians a genocide.

“At a time when Christians and minority communities continue to be in imminent danger and under constant attack, the president’s statement fails to stand up for human rights,” Armenian Assembly co-chairs Anthony Barsamian and Van Krikorian said in a statement.

Experts say part of the reason the White House has historically avoided labeling the killings as a genocide is because of the United States’ close alliance with Turkey — a strategic partner in the fight against the militant group Islamic State.

California, however, has been at the forefront of formally recognizing the event as a genocide and asking Congress to condemn it as such.

Schiff and U.S. Rep. Dave Trott (R-Michigan) introduced a resolution last month asking Congress to formally recognize the genocide.

And in 2015, Glendale Unified became the first school district in the country to dedicate a day in remembrance of the Armenian genocide.

“We are very proud of our state for taking this position and we will continue to work with our elected officials,” Hovsepian said.

For 77-year-old Peter Gebeshian, commemorating the Armenian genocide is a deeply personal moment — one that he doesn’t try to politicize.

His father fled what is now Turkey in 1915, eventually settling in Egypt. The retired aerospace mechanic said his father rarely spoke of the atrocities he faced.

Gebeshian now participates in the Armenian genocide march every year with his son, also named Peter Gebeshian.

“Coming here with my father every year helps build bridges across generations,” the 42-year-old English teacher at Glendale High School said.

He feels thankful, he added, to live in a community that allows him to embrace his culture.

Southern California — particularly Los Angeles County — is home to the largest Armenian community outside Armenia. According to U.S. census data, more than 200,000 people of Armenian descent live in the Los Angeles area.

Though many factors played a role in the 1915 genocide that killed 1.5 million Armenians, historians typically cite the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as the main factor.

Turkey has said the killings were not premeditated and were a part of a messy global upheaval during World War I.

"Over 100 years ago, the Ottoman Empire undertook a brutal campaign of murder, rape and displacement against the Armenian people that took the lives of 1.5 million men, women and children in the first genocide of the 20th century," Schiff said in a statement.

"Genocide is not a historic relic — even today hundreds of thousands of religious minorities face existential threat from ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It is therefore all the more pressing that the Congress recognize the historical fact of the Armenian genocide and stand against modern-day genocide and crimes against humanity."

Anna Nenedzhyan, who brought her children to Monday’s march, said she hopes that the tragedy of their familial past can be a lesson in empathy and compassion.

“This history is part of [our family] and I want future generations to know about it,” she said.

The Promise's director thinks Armenian genocide deniers are behind hostile online ratings

Repercussions from the Armenian genocide have been felt for more than 100 years, but with the release of a new historical drama, the conflict has taken an unexpected direction — into the world of online film ratings.

The Promise, starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, retells the story of the 1915 genocide, which has been rejected and fiercely disputed by the government of Turkey.

Shortly after the film's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last September, the film got a flood of scathing one-star ratings on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), even though it didn't have its official release until last Friday.

More than 139,000 reviews have been made since, most either giving it a single star or 10.

Terry George, the film's director, told reporters at a press conference last week that he thought the poor ratings had been orchestrated by those who don't agree with the use of the term genocide or deny it happened at all. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed during the First World War, rounded up and executed by Ottoman authorities.

"It can't have been 50,000 individuals decided after we had two screenings in Toronto to give us one out of 10. It seems like a miraculously spontaneous thing to happen, so I definitely think that was a bot or series of bots to give us that vote," he said.

All this sparked an equal and opposite reaction — by the Armenian camp — urging people to see the film.

That's not to say this wasn't expected.

When the film played at TIFF, George told CBC News he predicted the Turkish community's reaction "won't be good." Entertainment One, which is handling distribution of the film, said it wouldn't comment and didn't "have much information" about the negative campaign.

'You can't downplay it'

It's all familiar territory for Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who in 2002 put out Ararat, a different film about the genocide.

He said the "campaign to vilify" The Promise has had a spillover effect on Ararat's IMDb page, with a wave of new one-star and 10-star ratings. That can be troublesome, as Egoyan believes a film's ratings do count.

"Especially for people who are not familiar with the subject matter … you're going to look for the rating," he said. "You can't downplay it. It probably does have an effect."

Egoyan has faced his share of haters. He said there's not much that can be done in terms of the poor reviews they leave.

"You just have to have a really thick skin. You just have to realize that the good thing about films is that they have a long life," he said. "You hope that at a certain point the dust settles down and then people actually see the movie."

The Promise hasn't fared very well so far, only pulling in about $4.1 million in North America this past opening weekend. It cost an estimated $90 million to make, funded by the late Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. Any proceeds the film makes will be given to non-profit organizations.

The film's release follows that of The Ottoman Lieutenant, a largely Turkish-funded production starring Ben Kingsley, which glosses over the genocide.

But that too didn't fare very well at the box office, pulling in less than $150,000 in its limited-run opening weekend.

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