The U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. sponsored an ecumenical worship service on May 7 titled “The Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide: A Prayer for Justice and Peace.”

During a horrific period beginning in 1915 and continuing until 1923, more than 1.5 million Armenian Christians and other persons were murdered by militant Ottoman Turks.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of innocent victims were forced from their generational homelands and displaced throughout the world.

Historians refer to this series of violent acts as the first genocide of the 20th century.

More than 2,500 worshippers filled Washington National Cathedral for a prayer service remembering these events, while another 800 persons remained on a waiting list.

Dignitaries present included Vice President Joseph Biden and Serzh Sargsyan, president of the Republic of Armenia.

Following a 12-minute processional of ecumenical leaders, Katherine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, offered welcoming remarks.

She noted the cathedral was founded as a “house of prayer for all peoples” and historically has stood with victims and those marginalized by warfare and violence.

The theme for the service was taken from Psalm 85:10, which reads, “Mercy and truth will meet. Justice and peace will embrace.” Other Scripture lessons included Romans 8:31-39 and John 14:1-6.

An Armenian Orthodox Church choir sang a “Hymn for the Holy Martyrs of 1915.” Blessings, prayers and litanies in both Armenian and English were offered throughout the nearly two-hour long service.

Messages were brought by Aram I, Head of the Great House of Cilicia; and Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians. The homily was offered by Olaf Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches.

The presence, perhaps of a thousand cell phones that Armenian Christians were holding above their heads in order to record portions of the service, was noteworthy. It was a serious event and the cell phone videos and pictures did not distract from the somber remembrance. Yet it provided a notable contrast between the liturgy, parts of which were of very ancient practice, and modern technology being used to capture the moment for future memory.

A formal resolution from the governing board of the National Council of Churches was read during the service and noted the importance of standing against the evil of genocide wherever and whenever it is committed.

In the last century, genocide was perpetrated in Europe during the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s, in Cambodia in the late-1970s, in Rwanda in 1994, in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and in Darfur in the early-2000s.

Similar mass atrocities and crimes against humanity still occur in various parts of the world, including Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The prayer service itself was a solemn occasion heavily weighted with emotion. For the Armenian Christian community, it offered an opportunity to remember a painful past and to mourn their dead.

For others in attendance, it was a privilege to stand in solidarity with the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who were killed a century ago.

And for all of us, the service provided a moment in which to celebrate the resilience of the Armenian people.

As the NCC statement so beautifully expressed it, “The Christian faith is all about hope and all about the victory of life over death. Like Jesus Christ, who rose from the tomb to give life to the world (John 8:12), the Armenian people rose from the ashes of genocide … They are a powerful witness to faith in the resurrection and a profound testimony to God’s promise to remember those who take refuge in him (Psalm 18:30).”

John M. Finley is senior minister at First Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia. He attended the prayer service as an official observer of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on the governing board of the National Council of Churches.

Editor’s note: A 10-part series on genocide appeared on in April 2015 for Genocide Awareness Month. These articles, along with pictures from filming “Genocide 66,” EthicsDaily’s forthcoming documentary on the 1966 genocide in Nigeria, are available here.

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