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Armenian Church Diocesan Banquet Honors Congressman Gus Bilirakis, Sandra Shahinian Leitner

PALM HARBOR, FL – Two distinguished individuals were honored for their support of the Armenian Church and the larger Armenian community at the annual Awards Banquet held as part of the 115th Diocesan Assembly in Palm Harbor, FL, on Friday evening, May 5.

Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian presided over the banquet, which was hosted by St. Hagop Church of Pinellas Park, FL.

The award for the “Friend of the Armenians” was bestowed on U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis. A longtime supporter of Armenia and an advocate for Armenian Genocide recognition, Congressman Bilirakis has also been an outspoken proponent of preserving the Christian heritage in Turkey and the Middle East.

As the vice chair of the Congressional Armenian Caucus, he has worked to strengthen relations and economic cooperation between the U.S., Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabagh.

“This award means very much to me. I feel like I’m more than a friend—I’m a cousin,” Congressman Bilirakis said, referring to his Greek-American heritage.

He recalled hearing stories about the burning of Smyrna as a child, and being raised in a hardworking, pious Christian community. “We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors,” he said, “As long as they’re not forgotten, their sacrifice will continue to have meaning now and into the future.”

He went on to speak about his commitment to protecting Christians in the Middle East, creating opportunities for Orthodox church leaders to be heard by government officials, and pursuing efforts for Genocide recognition.

“Congressman Bilirakis, I want you to know that the entire Armenian Church community is grateful to you,” Archbishop Barsamian said. “We are proud to have such an honorable friend as you, lending your voice and strength to our own. I know you are a man of faith, and I want you to know that our prayers are always with you.”

Receiving this year’s “Armenian Church Member of the Year” award was Sandra Shahinian Leitner.

Ms. Shahinian Leitner has served the Armenian Church in a variety of capacities in her home parish of St. Leon Church of Fair Lawn, NJ, and on the Diocesan level. She is currently a Diocesan Trustee and board member of the Fund for Armenian Relief.

Ms. Shahinian Leitner recalled how she became involved in church leadership in her local parish and learned valuable lessons there that she took with her to other roles both on a Diocesan and global levels. She also noted the example of other women who have served the Armenian Church and laid the groundwork for women’s involvement in church leadership.

“My legacy is fleeting,” she had said in an interview prior to the awards banquet. “If anything, I hope that I have both touched individuals and influenced ways of thinking that will benefit us as a community of people who want to do good in the world.”

Both awards were presented by Archbishop Barsamian and Diocesan Council chair James Kalustian.

“Sandra puts all her energy, attention, and creativity into everything she is involved with—and it always leads to success,” Archbishop Barsamian said.

“On a personal level, Sandra is an individual of very fine character; honest, hard-working, and positive in outlook; a woman of grace, fine taste, and discernment,” he added. “She is friendly and generous with people from all walks of life.”

The Rev. Fr. Hovnan Demerjian, pastor of St. Hagop Church, spoke about the importance of keeping Christ at the center of our daily lives. He said it is up to the new generation to carry forward the legacy of the visionary founders of the Eastern Diocese.

“Our diocese is like Noah’s Ark—it delivered our people to safety after the Genocide,” he said. “Our ancestors built Armenian churches in America and said thanks to God, like Noah did.”

Stepan Serpekian, St. Hagop Church Assembly committee chair, welcomed the clergy, delegates, and parishioners to the celebratory evening. He expressed gratitude to the St. Hagop Church Assembly committee for their hard work in organizing the weekend’s meetings.

As St. Hagop Church is marking its 10th anniversary of consecration this year, parish council chair Dr. Michael Shahnasarian noted all the people who have contributed to building the community over the last decade. “We have great fellowship and a great community,” he said.

Aram Megerian served as the master of ceremonies. Susanna Hovhannisyan sang the national anthems of the U.S. and Armenia. Tatev Baroyan performed arias from Puccini and Babajanian.

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President Trump Statement on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day

By Taniel Koushakjian
FLArmenians Political Editor

Today, President Donald J. Trump released his administration’s first statement on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which is commemorated every April 24th by Armenians around the world. Using language invoked by presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him, President Trump did not use the term genocide to refer to the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish government during World War I.

“Today, we remember and honor the memory of those who suffered during the Meds Yeghern, one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.  Beginning in 1915, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire,” the White House statement reads.

[Click here for a complete list of U.S. Presidential Statements on the Armenian Genocide]

“At a time when Christians and minority communities continue to be in imminent danger and under constant attack, the President’s statement fails to stand up for human rights and is inconsistent with American values, and represents the same kind of capitulation to Turkish authoritarianism which will cost more lives,” stated Van Krikorian and Anthony Barsamian, co-chairs of the Armenian Assembly of America.

Earlier this month, 84 Members of Congress sent a letter to President Trump urging him to reaffirm the U.S. record on the Armenian Genocide. “By commemorating the Armenian Genocide, we renew our commitment to prevent future atrocities,” the letter reads. Florida Representatives Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Ted Deutch (D-FL) were among the signatories.

“Asked why Trump decided not to use the term, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the statement is “consistent with statements that have been put out for at least several of the last administrations,”” The Hill reported.

Trumped employed the Armenian phrase “Meds Yeghern” to describe the genocide, essentially using the Armenian equivalent of the English phrase. However, unlike, Presidents Obama and George W., Trump did not make a campaign pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide as President.

Ronald Reagan was the last U.S. President to recognize the Armenian Genocide back in 1981.

Below is the full statement released by the White House:

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Statement by President Donald J. Trump on Armenian Remembrance Day 2017

Today, we remember and honor the memory of those who suffered during the Meds Yeghern, one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.  Beginning in 1915, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.  I join the Armenian community in America and around the world in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the suffering endured by so many.

As we reflect on this dark chapter of human history, we also recognize the resilience of the Armenian people.  Many built new lives in the United States and made indelible contributions to our country, while cherishing memories of the historic homeland in which their ancestors established one of the great civilizations of antiquity.

We must remember atrocities to prevent them from occurring again.  We welcome the efforts of Turks and Armenians to acknowledge and reckon with painful history, which is a critical step toward building a foundation for a more just and tolerant future.

How Florida Representatives Voted on the Bill to Pause the Syrian Refugee Program

By Taniel Koushakjian
FLArmenians Managing Editor

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 289-137 to adopt H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015, a bill that would pause the federal government’s current resettlement program for refugees from Syria and Iraq.

The bill requires the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to perform background checks and sign off that each refugee “is not a threat to the security of the United States.”

The current policy only requires the DHS to perform background checks and takes 18-24 months to complete. The additional security checks would prolong the current process. All refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S. are first registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and those eligible are reported to DHS to begin the process.

The legislation comes on the heels of the November 13th terrorist attack in Paris, France that left 129 dead. At least one of the Paris attackers is known to have travelled from Syria to Europe through Greece, the route used by millions of migrants fleeing the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Syria and Iraq.

The House vote is a rebuke to President Obama, who threatened on Wednesday to veto the legislation. The additional security measures are “unnecessary and impractical,” the White House said. “Given the lives at stake and the critical importance to our partners in the Middle East and Europe of American leadership in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, if the president were presented with H.R. 4038, he would veto the bill.”

47 Democrats joined 242 Republicans, giving House lawmakers a veto-proof majority they hope will force the President’s hand on the issue.

In Florida, 19 of the state’s 27 Representatives voted in favor of the tougher measures, with two Democrats joining Florida’s entire Republican delegation in support of the bill.

HR4038-FL Vote_crop

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL), a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016, voted in favor of the SAFE Act. He released the following statement after the vote: “I am deeply disappointed how divisive this debate has become. Homeland security should never be partisan and our number one priority is to always keep the American people safe. With new security considerations following the tragic and cowardly attacks in Paris last week, we must ensure that we have the strongest safeguards to certify refugees are not a threat to homeland security. This bill ensures that our entire intelligence community is on the same page without turning our backs on those fleeing violence and terror. We must put aside partisan differences to develop a comprehensive strategy that combats the threat ISIS poses to people who love freedom everywhere.”

Meanwhile, Murphy’s opponent for U.S. Senate, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) voted against the bill. Murphy “chose fear over humanity when he voted against Syrian refugees,” Grayson posted on Twitter.

Rep. Gwen Graham (D-FL) is the other Florida Democrat to break ranks, stating “As the granddaughter of a Christian who came to America after fleeing religious violence, I do believe we have a role in helping peace-seeking refugees — but in light of new threats, we must strengthen our vetting process. We must be able to identify those who wish to do us harm, while continuing to offer a safe haven to those in need of refuge from war and persecution.”

Graham represents a swing district in northern Florida and narrowly won election in 2014. Her seat is expected to become safe-Republican after the Florida Supreme Court completes the redistricting process before the end of the year.

“As elected officials, we have the responsibility to do everything we can to protect our nation,” stated Armenian Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL). “The SAFE Act puts in place a robust, extensive vetting and monitoring process to identify individuals who pose a security threat. It fulfills our promise to the American people that we are working diligently to prevent terrorists from reaching our shores.”

ARMENIAN AMERICANS REACT

For Armenian Americans, the issue tugs at the heartstrings as images and stories of those fleeing the violence emerge. Following the World War I Armenian Genocide, Christian Armenian orphans and other survivors were accepted into Syrian society and over the last century developed into a critical part of Syria’s multi-cultural mosaic. Some 180,000 Armenian Christians used to call Aleppo home up until a few years ago when they were driven out by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

“I fully support the resettlement of Syrian refugees, irrespective of their ethno-religious affiliation, in the U.S.,” stated Sarkis Balkhian, Advocacy Director for the Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization, who is himself an Armenian American citizen from Aleppo. “During the 4.5 years of the Syrian conflict, the United States has resettled approximately 2,000 Syrian refugees out of a total of 4.3 million. That’s a comical number,” Balkhian said. “But yesterday’s vote confirmed that 289 Representatives are oblivious about the U.S. resettlement program and the vigorous vetting process already in place. What’s worse is that it appears they have succumbed to fear and are punishing the victims of ISIS rather than ISIS itself.”

Yet, Armenian Americans seem to be equally concerned about the potential influx of radical extremists who seek to harm us and destroy our way of life. 

“I am wholeheartedly opposed to our government’s current plan to bring refugees from Syria and Iraq to the United States,” stated Ani Tramblian, an Armenian American from Annandale, Virginia. “I use the term bringing, because we are literally bringing them here, using American taxpayer dollars. Our President is putting U.S. citizens in harms way and exposing us to unnecessary risk. The House was right to pause the current process and add tougher security measures especially in light of terrorist attacks in Paris, and I hope our President takes our Congress seriously,” she said. 

Syria Poll

On Wednesday night, Florida Armenians launched an online poll, admittedly unscientific. At the time of this writing, the poll finds 51% of Armenian Americans in support of accepting 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees as currently planned. 35% of Armenian Americans oppose accepting refugees from Syria and Iraq, while 13% agree with the House measure and support a pause in the current resettlement program, according to the Florida Armenians poll.

The Florida Armenians poll on Syria refugees will close on Friday at midnight.