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RACINE — Before the Turkish Ottoman Empire would collapse after a rule of more than 600 years, its leaders would undertake one of the most horrendous episodes of ethnic cleansing — the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians.

On Sunday, local Armenians, local religious leaders and others gathered at Monument Square to reflect on the centennial of the start of the Armenian genocide, which began in April 1915 when Armenian leaders and intellectuals were gathered in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), shuttled off to a remote desert area and killed. The genocide continued until 1923.

Sunday’s vigil, attended by at least 200 people, recalled the near wiping out of a culture but also celebrated how Armenians persevered and have gone on to leave their mark, including through a vibrant Armenian-American population that has a strong presence in the Greater Racine area.

Father Daron Stepanian, pastor of St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church, 4100 Newman Road, Mount Pleasant, noted how the sacrifice of the genocide victims brought innovation through those who did survive. He noted how people of Armenian decent developed the ink used in American currency, developed the automatic transmission and developed magnetic resonance imaging.

“So really, the Armenian dream came true,” Stepanian said.

Many attending Sunday’s ceremony held white crosses representing those martyred in the genocide. Father Yepram Kelegian, pastor of St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church, 4604 Erie St., Caledonia, asked the crowd to pray to the martyrs for intercession of all other people suffering from persecution in different parts of the world.

“There are so many other parts of the world where there is oppression, there’s intolerance, there’s persecution of any religion,” Kelegian said. “The sacred martyrs of 1915, we wil ask them to transform this world into a better place. The cross is a weapon that can solve problems peacefully.”

The ongoing persecution of peoples of different faiths around the world was not lost on Pope Francis, said Deacon Greg Petro of St. Rita’s Catholic Church, 4339 Douglas Ave., Caledonia, and the president of the Racine Interfaith Coalition, which helped organize Sunday’s vigil.

“In so many parts of the world right now, religious intolerance and the violence is being perpetrated against all sorts of people — it is insanity,” said Petro. “We have to make sure that does not happen here in our community. What happened in Armenia can never happen again.”

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