U.S. Vice President Joe Biden joined President Serzh Sarkisian and over two thousand Armenian Americans at Washington’s National Cathedral late on Thursday in a remembrance ceremony that marked the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
The ecumenical prayer service led by the supreme heads of the Armenian Apostolic Church was also attended by top clerics of the Roman Catholic, Russian and Syriac Orthodox and American Evangelical churches as well as the secretary general of the World Council of Churches, Olav Fykse Tveit. The two-hour service featured sermons delivered by them and a speech by Sarkisian.
Biden was accompanied at the ceremony by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations known for her strong support for a formal U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide. Power was reportedly among senior U.S. administration officials who urged President Barack Obama to refer to the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide in his most recent April 24 statement on the tragedy.
Obama decided to again avoid using the politically sensitive term, however. He at the same time implicitly praised Pope Francis for honoring the victims of “the first genocide of the 20th century” on April 12. Obama also paid tribute to Henry Morgenthau, America’s First World War-era ambassador in Constantinople who tried to stop what he saw as a “campaign of race extermination” by the Ottoman Turks.
These gestures were dismissed by the leading Armenian-American advocacy groups. They argued that Obama repeatedly pledged to explicitly call the massacres a genocide when he ran for president in 2007-2008.
One of those organizations, the Armenian Assembly of America, welcomed Biden’s and Power’s presence at the Washington ceremony. "We are pleased to have Vice President Biden and Ambassador Power join Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian in honoring the victims of the Armenian Genocide," its executive director, Bryan Ardouny, said in a statement.
Ardouny pointed out that Biden was a staunch backer of Armenian genocide recognition during his long tenure in the U.S. Senate. In 2005, Biden was among the senators who wrote to then President George W. Bush urging him to ignore Turkish protests and refer to the mass killings as genocide.
Biden co-sponsored a corresponding congressional resolution two years later. It never reached the Senate floor.
The U.S. vice president made no statements during Thursday’s church service.
Sarkisian, meanwhile, expressed hope that the United States will eventually recognize the genocide, arguing that 44 U.S. states have already done so. “I hope that a full recognition by the U.S. of the Armenian genocide is a matter of ‘when,’ rather than ‘if,’” he said.
In his speech, the Armenian president also paid tribute to Morgenthau and U.S. relief agencies who helped many genocide survivors during and after the First World War. “Throughout our 100-year struggle for justice and truth we have felt America’s support,” he said. “The number of genocide victims would have been much higher and the fate of survivors much sadder had friendly countries, including the United States of America, not stood by our people.”
“The Armenian people will forever remember the hundreds of Americans who set up orphanages in Armenia, the Middle East and Europe, saving the lives and taking care of tens of thousands of Armenian orphans,” added Sarkisian.