With a simple gesture, two archbishops of the Armenian Apostolic Church made the enormity of last week's earthquake clear to the 300,000 Armenians in California, the largest colony outside the Soviet Union.
They sat down at the same table in a Hollywood parish hall and called on Armenians to help the homeland.
For more than 50 years, such a meeting was unthinkable. One prelate is loyal to a branch of the church based in the highlands of Soviet Armenia, the other to a pontiff in Lebanon. The split is not over religious beliefs, for both wings practice the orthodox Christianity that has guided Armenians for 1,600 years. The schism is over politics--no trivial matter in a community with three active political parties in Los Angeles alone.
But this weekend was no time for politics, the rival prelates agreed.
Once again, the 20th Century had dealt cruelty to the Armenians. As many as 100,000 were dead, more than 500,000 without shelter from the harsh winter in the Caucusus Mountains.
This in a land of fewer than three million, the last native Armenians in what was once a thriving civilization. Clothing, blankets, medical supplies, doctors, money and prayers were all desperately needed.
"Our gathering today is to put aside our differences," said Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian, primate of the Western Diocese of the branch based in Echmiadzin in Soviet Armenia, and host of the Friday night meeting at St. John Armenian Cathedral.
"I pray for the dead, but today we are here to do our best," said Archbishop Datev Sarkissian, prelate of the Western Prelacy of the branch based in Antelias, Lebanon.
The best has been pretty good. The two church leaders and their supporters agreed that former state Assemblyman Walter Karabian should coordinate relief efforts in the Armenian community. They also consented to test their new friendship and meet again tonight.
In an outpouring that shows how successful the Armenian community has become, leaders of one church said Friday night that $3 million in pledges had been received.
By mid-day Saturday, more than $200,000 was collected at an Armenian school in Encino. A six-hour telethon on KSCI-TV, Channel 18, drew $2.9 million in pledges despite airing in the early morning Sunday.
"We pray, we cry. We try to do something," said Arpi Mihranian, a nurse at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, who spent her Saturday evening stacking bills and sorting boxes of coins brought into the Hollywood Armenian Center.
Cause of Reawakening
Amid the tears and anguished phone calls halfway around the world, Armenian leaders are already talking about the good that may come from the tragedy.
The chilling reports of leveled villages and buried children 10,000 miles away seem to have reawakened Californians of Armenian descent to their people's place in history. For them the quake was not in the Soviet Union. It was in \o7 Armenia.\f7
"The tragedy has had a binding effect," said Richard G. Hovannisian, assistant director of the Near East Center and professor of Armenian history at UCLA. "The political boundaries are secondary to the historical, cultural bond of people."
Ancient Armenia had the misfortune to sit astride the trade routes to Asia. Isolation in the mountains proved no protection, and Armenia has been ruled by some of history's most ruthless conquerors--Romans, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and now the Soviet Union.
But Armenians don't need to look very far back in history to find their blood spilled.
"The 20th Century has been very unkind to Armenians, possibly the most tragic in their centuries of existence," said Richard H. Dekmejian, chairman of the department of political science at USC. "It's as if they are people God forgot."
Half of all Armenians in the world were slaughtered by Turkish Muslims at the start of World War I in the century's first attempt at genocide. Armenians have tried to call attention to the killings, but the world's attitude was summed up by Adolf Hitler in 1939: "Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?"
Stalin massacred more than 100,000 Armenians. More recently the civil war in Lebanon and the Islamic revolution in Iran have cost Armenians their lives. This year, Armenians have been killed and more than 100,000 displaced by ethnic strife in the Soviet province of Azerbaijan, a Muslim enclave bordering Soviet Armenia.
Aram Hovsepian, a 24-year-old clerk at the Kroun Market on Vermont Avenue, knows the history. He also knows the customers who come into his store, in the section of East Hollywood some call Little Armenia.
"In the whole world we are not too many, and every one counts," said Hovsepian, who came to Los Angeles from Lebanon in 1978. "This will unite our whole people together."
Little Armenia has seen the arrival of about 10,000 new emigres from Soviet Armenia this year, allowed to join their families here by a new, freer Soviet policy on immigration.