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A handful of Armenians remain in Sudan after years of conflict in that country. The Armenian Church and Armenian Club are still there to this day.
Keeping Armenia Alive in the Capital of Sudan
Tuesday, Jun. 09, 2009
"If Armenians are to be great then they have to pray," says Father Gabriel Sargsyan. "As long as there is one Armenian left, there will be a church." Perhaps, but only a handful of the 50 or so Armenians left in Khartoum have turned up for mass — held in the evening, because Sunday is a working day in the capital of predominantly Muslim Sudan. After the service, the small group sits on the porch of the St. Gregory Armenian Church, sipping sugary coffee and remembering the days when the pews used to be full.
Despite the Khartoum government having 'Islamized' the north of the country through the imposition of Shari'a law, there is no sense of religious persecution here at St. Gregory's. Leaders of the Armenian and the neighboring Ethiopian Orthodox churches say they feel safe in Khartoum, and that the persecution of Catholics and Protestants from southern Sudan is a product of the country's north-south power struggle — the small Orthodox Christian communities pose no threat to the predominantly Muslim government. "We respect the law of the land and stay out of trouble," says Eyasu Tadele, an official of Khartoum's Ethiopian Orthodox Church. (See pictures of Darfur.)
The Ethiopian Church, in fact, fares somewhat better than its Armenian neighbor, attracting a flood of worshippers every Sunday. That may be a product of shifting patterns of immigration. Many Armenians came to Sudan as refugees from the mass murder in Turkey that began in 1915, while a second wave of immigrants arrived in the 1950s, seeking opportunities in the newly independent country. St. Gregory's opened its doors in 1957, and at its peak, the congregation was 2,000 strong. But many have since left in search of opportunity in Europe and North America, while the Ethiopian expatriate community in Sudan has steadily grown. "First they were coming because of the political crisis and now because of economic reasons," says Tadele.
As much as he appreciates the company of his Christian neighbors, Father Gabriel is concerned that several Armenians have married Ethiopian Christians and Copts, producing children who are taught Arabic or Amharic rather than Armenian. "When one person stops speaking Armenian, our Diaspora is lost," he says. That's why he's working hard to resuscitate the old church school to teach the Armenian language, although with wealthier members of the community having emigrated, he struggles to find the necessary funds. More families are contemplating leaving for fear of a new season of instability as fallout from the international arrest warrant accusing President Omar al-Bashir of war crimes in Darfur. Only a few children remain at the school, but Father Gabriel would be happy to teach even just one student. "Armenia lives through our language," he says.
One Sudanese Armenian who claims he will never leave is Jeriar Homer Charles Bozadjian, whose family history in Sudan dates back 100 years. Bozadjian runs a restaurant called Big Bite in Khartoum. "I have never seen Armenia," he says. "Sudan is my home."
Despite the imposition of Shari'a law, "This is not like Saudi Arabia," says Wafaa Babikier, who studies Management at Ahfad University for Women in Omdurman city. "Girls have the freedom to do everything." Not everyone answers the call to prayer; women drive cars and attend co-ed universities; and they outnumber men in many offices and educational institutions. Others, like Alfred Taban, editor of the Khartoum Monitor, demur, warning that behind the facade of tolerance is a more hard-core Islamist outlook. "A foreigner would not notice," he says. Taban claims to have been whipped for drinking alcohol in a traditional toast at the birth of a relative's son.
But Bozadjian aggressively defends his homeland's plurality. "Sudan is a unique country," he says. "Muslims helped to build this church." But others note that many Armenians left Sudan after their properties were confiscated under the radical regime of President Jaafar Nimeiri during the 1970s. Elizabeth Jinjinian, a 70-year-old businesswoman, recalls how the land of the Armenian club was taken away when the community began to shrink, "We used to have many balls, picnics and parties."
Often tempted to join her sons in London or New York, Jinjinian has stayed on to run her small cosmetics business, which has survived years of war and sanctions. "Exports and imports dried up," she says. "We had to get goods into the country in suitcases."
Despite the resilience of many of the community's veterans, the efforts of Father Gabriel to sustain his culture in this corner of the Armenian Diaspora face mounting odds. Indeed, the priest himself is slated to leave soon, because the community no longer has the funds to support him. He hopes someone in the community will step forward to run his school. "If you have a school, your nation is going on," he says.
The collective memory of the horrors of 1915 may be the most powerful factor in sustaining the community's identity. On the dusty church verandah, Jinjinian animatedly narrates the tale of her mother's escape from Turkey after her grandparents were killed. "She was at the dressmakers so she was saved." Her tale is well known to the congregants, but everyone listens respectfully as a warm breeze ushers in another hot summer.
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Survivors of Armenian genocide urge Chinese pressures on Sudan
September 25, 2007 (YEREVAN, Armenia) – Survivors of Armenian genocide urged Chinese government to pressurize Sudan to ensure security for Darfur people and to end the four years conflict before August, 2008, date of the beginning of Olympic games.
Less than one year before Beijing Olympic Games begin, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, and prominent human rights activists pointedly connected the government of China to the first genocide of the 21st century in a torch lighting ceremony at a site commemorating the first genocide of the 20th century.
Archbishop Williams stated, “Today, we honored victims and survivors of genocides of the past century, linking them together through our passing of a torch signifying the hope that we share for an end to the violence in Darfur. I join these survivors in standing up to say that although the international community has stood by silently again and again while the blood of innocent human beings is shed, we must now make the phrase ‘never again’ a reality.”
“Following many years of indifference, the Chinese government is now asserting that it has been a leader for peace in Darfur. But even in the best of scenarios, there will not be an adequate peacekeeping force on the ground for many months,” said Jill Savitt, Director of Dream for Darfur. “We must continue pressing China so that the next Olympic Games, an international symbol of peace and brotherhood, are not hosted by a nation that is complicit in the ultimate international crime.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, along with Darfur advocates and Armenian genocide survivors, lit the torch at the eternal flame at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. The torch was then passed around the eternal flame in a somber ceremony honoring survivors of genocide and remembering the lives lost both in Darfur, and in previous genocides of the 20th century.
“This flame honors those who have been lost and those who suffer; this flame celebrates the courage of those who have survived; this flame represents the hope we all share for an end to the violence and a safe return home,” said Omer Ismail, a Sudanese survivor from Darfur, as he passed the torch.
"Armenians worldwide understand the realities and pain of genocide, even today, 92 years after the Armenian Genocide. Today’s event demonstrates our solidarity with the people of Darfur, and with all those who have been subjected to genocide," said Arpi Vartanian, Armenian Assembly of America Country Director for Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.
The Dream for Darfur symbolic Olympic Torch Relay began on the border of strife-ridden Darfur and Chad in August, where Mia Farrow and other Darfur advocates lit the torch. The Relay then traveled to Kigali, Rwanda, where survivors of the Rwandan genocide passed the torch from the site where thousands of Tutsis were killed after UN forces withdrew.
After Armenia, the Torch Relay will continue to other countries associated with genocide and mass slaughter – Bosnia, Germany, and Cambodia, ending in Hong Kong to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, China’s own experience with the murder of innocents.
Dream for Darfur, a year-long campaign undertaken with the support of a worldwide network of Darfur advocates, is both asking and demanding that China, in its role as Olympic host and close partner of Sudan, use its unique influence with Khartoum to end the suffering in Darfur—before the Games begin in August, 2008. The campaign motto is “China, Please: Bring the Olympic Dream to Darfur.”
In solidarity with the international torch relay, a relay will be held in 25 states in the United States between September and December to build public pressure on China in regard to its dual roles as Olympic host and sponsor of a genocidal regime. More info can be found at: www.savedarfur.org/torchrelay. National relays are also slated for Canada, Italy, Sierra Leone, the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, and South Africa.
In seeking to enlist China’s intensive involvement in resolving the Darfur crisis, the Dream for Darfur campaign is contacting the IOC, national Olympic committees, and corporate sponsors of the ’08 Olympics.
“We welcomed China’s recent UN vote to allow a peacekeeping force into Sudan, but China now must press Sudan to ensure that the words on paper translate into action,” said Savitt. “We will continue our campaign until China uses its influence with Khartoum and we see adequate and verifiable security on the ground in Darfur.”