In a rare display of unity Tuesday that brought together diverse segments of the Southern California Armenian community, several thousand worshipers overflowed St. Peter Armenian Apostolic Church in Van Nuys to commemorate the anniversary of the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Only hours later, however, a different mood prevailed when a demonstration at the Turkish Consulate by about 500 people of Armenian descent turned unruly and 70 protesters were arrested.
Authorities said all but one were arrested for failing to disperse after they blocked the street and sidewalks in front of the consulate at the corner of June Street and Wilshire Boulevard. The other demonstrator was arrested for allegedly interfering with a police officer.
At the service earlier in the day, two archbishops, representing the factions of the Armenian church that formed during a political disagreement during the 1930s, warmly embraced in front of an ornate altar and--for the first time--shared in leading a liturgical service. The rites also included participation by Southern California Protestant and Jewish leaders.
During his sermon, Archbishop Datev Sarkissian, head of the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, called Tuesday "a sad and difficult day. . . . We honor the memory of 1.5 million Armenians who lost their lives in genocide."
Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian, head of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, celebrated an Armenian High Mass during the service "for the souls of the martyrs."
The rally outside the consulate began at about 10 a.m. and the demonstrators, carrying placards and chanting slogans, asked to be allowed inside to hand over a petition calling for the Turkish government to acknowledge "the reality of the genocide," Police Capt. Keith Bushey said.
Bushey said the arrests were made when the protesters "ceased to be peaceful and filled (June) Street chanting to get into the building."
Protesters claimed that the rally had not gotten out of hand until the LAPD broke it up.
Victoria Sansaria, a demonstrator who said she had emigrated to Los Angeles from Moscow eight months ago, said she participated in several peaceful marches calling for a free Armenia while in the Soviet Union.
"The Moscow police, which is supposed to be a very brutal police force, didn't treat us as violently as the LAPD today," said the middle-aged woman.
Tuesday was a day of worldwide mourning for Armenians who consider the date to be the anniversary of the start of a campaign by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 to massacre the Armenian minority in Turkey. Turkish officials reject the accusation that more than a million Armenians were slaughtered, saying that perhaps 300,000 died during a mass deportation and that Turks and Armenians both were victims of a civil war, famine and epidemic that plagued the country between 1915 and 1923.
The Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying that "every April the Armenians intensify their campaign to publicize their historically unfounded version of the events."
The issue has long been a political hot potato. Three times, the Turkish government along with companies that do business in Turkey have succeeded in scuttling attempts in the U.S. Congress to pass a resolution commemorating the Armenian genocide on April 24.
Late Friday, President Bush quietly issued a proclamation to the nation's nearly 1 million Armenians--300,000 of whom live in Southern California--that avoided using the word "genocide." But it called April 24 "a day of remembrance for the . . . Armenian people who were victims."
Archbishop Sarkissian, wearing a black hood over a purple robe and holding a gold-tipped shepherd's staff, or crosier, in one hand and a jeweled cross in the other, used the occasion to criticize those who downplay the 1915 event as "a minor conflict. . . . Our President and senators should stand up and condemn genocide."
The Van Nuys service was unusual because it included "all clergy, political parties and segments of the Southern California Armenian community," Archbishop Hovsepian said in an interview.
He added that the two branches of the Armenian church in North America "now have a rapprochement and will move towards reunification."
The church split, which came to a head over allegiance to the Armenian flag, followed a political rift among Armenians. One group remained intense nationalists, loyal to an independent Armenia; the other accommodated itself to the inevitable Russian takeover of Armenia, which took place in 1921.
Rabbi Lennard Thal, regional director of Reform Judaism, told the audience, which spilled out onto the lawns and courtyard of St. Peter Church, that, "We Jews have suffered so much through the hands of cruel tyrants throughout history . . . (that) today we express solidarity with our Armenian brothers and sisters."