Memorable Week: Visits to Vatican and New York
The Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, visited the Vatican last week at the invitation of His Holiness Benedict XVI. He was accorded an exceptionally warm reception by the Pope. Since 2000, this is the second pontifical visit of Karekin II to the Holy See of the Catholic Church.
The Catholicos was accompanied by high-ranking Armenian clergymen along with a group of distinguished Armenians from various countries.
On May 7, Karekin II, sitting next to the Pope, addressed the tens of thousands of Catholics assembled from around the world at St. Peter Square. In his remarks, which were covered extensively by the international media, the Catholicos said: “We Armenians are a people who have survived genocide, and we know well the value of love, brotherhood, friendship and a secure life. Today, many countries of the world recognize and condemn the genocide committed against the Armenian people by Ottoman Turkey.”
The Pope, in his response, merely referred to the Armenian Genocide as “severe persecutions suffered by Armenian Christians, especially during the last century.”
This was a sharp departure from the joint declaration issued by Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin II on Sept. 27, 2001 which referred to the Armenian Genocide as “the first genocide of the twentieth century.” The Armenian Genocide was also mentioned in a Joint Communique issued by Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin II on Nov. 9, 2000.
In the afternoon of May 7, Karekin II visited the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome which conferred upon him an Honorary Doctorate. The visit ended with a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI on May 9.
The guided tours of the St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum were unforgettable experiences, particularly the Sistine Chapel, the ceiling of which was decorated by Michelangelo. The most memorable part of the visit was seeing the larger than life statue of St. Gregory the Illuminator, which is located in the north patio of the Vatican Basilica.
From Rome, I flew directly to New York City, where I was presented with the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. This is a special recognition accorded to those who have made outstanding contributions to their ethnic heritage as well as to the United States. Among the 106 honorees were five other Armenian-Americans who were similarly recognized: Noubar Afeyan, Annette Choolfaian, Maria Mehranian and Dr. Vartkes and Mary Najarian. The patriotic ceremony was held at the historic Ellis Island.
On this occasion, I was privileged to be one of a handful of honorees and the only Armenian who was asked to make brief remarks at the elaborate ceremonies, full of pomp and circumstance. All branches of the U.S. military participated in this patriotic program by marching and performing musical medleys.
Here is the full text of my brief remarks that I was asked to deliver on this occasion:
“I wish to speak today about A - B - C. No, not the TV network! The A - B - C I have in mind stands for ‘American by Choice.’
“I am proud to be an American by choice! Many of the honorees today are also ‘Americans by Choice!’ So are the millions of immigrants who passed through the venerable gates of this Great Hall and were welcomed to the shores of this Promised Land by Lady Liberty.
“I did not have the good fortune of being born in this wonderful country.
“As the grandson of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, I made the wise choice of moving to the United States many years ago.
“I received a first rate education a few miles from here at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs and married a lovely lady -- my wife, Irene, with whom I have raised three wonderful children: Nora, Aram and Lara. My family joins me tonight.
“Only those of us who have come here from another country can fully appreciate the freedoms and opportunities that we enjoy in America. The rest of you, who are natives of this land, will be able to better appreciate this country, if you were to spend a little bit of time overseas, where you would not find the comforts and freedoms that all of us take for granted in the United States.
“To make today’s honor even more special for me, I just learned that the copper that the Statue of Liberty is made of may have been shipped to France from a copper mine in Armenia.
“If true, what a lucky coincidence!
“The Statue of Liberty and I share the same national origin -- which makes both of us Americans by Choice!”