On June 20, in Detroit, Michigan, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to recognize the Armenian Genocide, urging congregations to commemorate its centennial in 2015, and directing church leadership to call upon the United States President and Congress to condemn the acts as genocide as well.

From 1915-1923 when the Ottoman Empire massacred 1.5 million Armenians and expelled one million more from their historic homeland (now Turkey), the Presbyterian Church directed relief funds to Armenians throughout those years, and its General Assemblies vehemently protested the “atrocities.”

Over the last 50 years, Presbyterian support to struggling Armenian communities has come through the Jinishian Memorial Program (JMP) which operates relief, development and spiritual missions through inter-church partnerships in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jerusalem, and Armenia.

This historic resolution—the first of its kind for a major American church body—was adopted by the 1.8- million-member church in response to overtures from three of its regional presbyteries: Chicago, Los Ranchos (southern California), and Palisades (New Jersey).  Rev. Dr. Christine Chakoian, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, IL, and Rev. Dr. Vartkes Kassouni, a retired pastor in Southern California currently serving as Parish Associate in Tustin Presbyterian Church, were the overture advocates. Also lending his testimony as an ecumenical partner was the Rev. Fr. Garabed Kochakian, Pastor of St. John’s Armenian Church, Southfield, MI. Jinishian Memorial Program leadership played a key role in initiating and supporting the process.

JMP director Eliza Minasyan says the JMP global team feels encouraged by the acknowledgement this action brings to the communities served by the Jinishian program: “Especially for our colleagues in Syria right now—these are genocide survivors of great faith and courage who are helping children and the sick and displaced in a time of great danger—this brings them hope that they are not abandoned.”

In summary, this resolution takes four key actions:

First, urges member congregations to recognize the Armenian genocide; to express deep sympathy to the Armenian people and designate April 24 every year as the day of remembrance; and to honor the provisions of American and international law to prevent recurrence of such crimes.

Second, supports the designation of “genocide” for the death of 1.5 million Armenians and the expulsion of one million more from the Ottoman Empire in the years 1915-1923.

Third, directs the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly to call on the President and the Congress of the United States of America to recognize and condemn the death and expulsion of the Armenians; to communicate this resolution to our ecumenical partners nationally and internationally.

Fourth, encourage official observance of the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in worship services on Sunday, April 26, 2015 in all PC(USA) churches.

Minasyan recalls: “As JMP planned to commemorate the genocide’s 100th anniversary, we recognized an opportunity for the PC(USA) to officially designate this systematic elimination of a people as genocide.”

Kassouni pointed out in Detroit that the term genocide was not coined until 1947, in part as a response to the Armenian experience, which represented the first genocide of the 20th century. He feels that this recognition helps bring healing for surviving generations of Armenians and makes a way for reconciliation.

Chakoian emphasized that they are calling congregations across the country “to testify to this tragedy and to help ensure that no other peoples experience such suffering.”

Kassouni, Chakoian, and Kochakian all spoke before the Peacemaking and International Relations Committee, the body of clergy and laypeople responsible for debating and voting on whether to recommend this action for final adoption by the full body of 565 delegates. During committee deliberations, many Presbyterians of all backgrounds spoke up with great sensitivity and determination to stand for justice on behalf of the Armenian people—the overture passed unanimously.

“This was a rare occasion when three Armenian clergy (two Protestant and one Apostolic), stood together in strong cooperative witness and support on behalf of Armenian people,” Kassouni reported. “It’s a great tribute to the cooperative, consistent, intelligent, and dedicated effort on behalf of our Armenian people, past and present.”

Chakoian recalled how her own family experienced the decimation of the genocide, and helped the committee understand Armenia’s story: “Armenia was the first Christian country: the first to embrace Christianity, even before the Roman Empire. Our eight-sided churches testify to our baptism and the promise of the resurrection. In the mid-19th century, American missionaries came to Turkey; my family was among those whom the missionaries touched. Since then, education has been a priority—including education for women and girls, far ahead of its time. When I was eight years old, my grandmother told me the story of how her beloved uncles were forced to kneel and were shot in the back of the head. This overture urges us to remember the genocide. But it does more than that. It also testifies to the truth that hope does not die. This overture witnesses to the Christians who are persecuted in the region today that they are not forgotten.”