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Leon Tourian was born 1 January 1879 in Istanbul, Turkey. Before his appointment to New York in 1931, Tourian was archbishop of Smyrna, Vicar Patriarch of Constantinople, and later a prelate in Greece, Bulgaria, and in Manchester, UK.
The incident that resulted in a plot to assassinate the archbishop took place on 1 July 1933, in a pavilion for the celebration of Armenian Day at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Archbishop Tourian, upon his arrival to deliver an invocation, ordered the removal of the red, blue, and orange Tricolor of Democratic Republic of Armenia (1918 – 1920) from the stage before he would step out on it.
From the archbishop's point of view, appearing beside this flag would provoke the wrath of Armenia's Soviet government, which was a serious concern, since the church's ultimate seat of spiritual authority lay in the Holy See at Echmiadzin, within the borders of Soviet Armenia, and Catholicos of All Armenians felt bound to keep peace with Soviet authorities.
However the members of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), knowns as Dashnaks, for whom the flag was a sacred symbol of the Armenian nation, took this as an act of treason. Tourian was soon attacked by 5 ARF members in Worcester, Massachusetts. Two of the attackers were convicted. After this incident Tourian hired a bodyguard.
The conflict climaxed Dec. 24, 1933, when several men attacked Archbishop Leon Tourian, in the Church of the Holy Cross, in the Washington Heights, Manhattan, at the start of the Christmas Eve service. Tourian’s constant bodyguard, Kossof Gargodian, was sitting in the back of the church certain that there would be no assault upon Tourian in a holy place, on the day before Christmas. However, when archbishop passed at the end of procession the fifth raw of the pews from the rear, he was suddenly surrounded by a group of men in such a fashion as to hide the actions of their companions. Two of assailants stabbed Tourian with large butcher knives, and once the archbishop fell, the attackers scattered and mixed with the crowd. Two of assailants were seized by the parishioners, beaten, and subsequently handed over to the police.
The police soon apprehended the other 7 assailants, who were all ARF members. On 14 July 1934, after the trial that lasted 5 weeks, 2 of them, Matios Leylegian and Nisham Sarkisian, were found guilty of first degree murder, and another 7 of first degree manslaughter. Leylegian and Sarkisian were sentenced to death, but Governor of New York Herbert Lehman commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment "on account of most unusual circumstances in this case". The other seven were given prison terms of varying lengths, from 10 to 20 years.
After the killing, American Armenians became split between local churches affiliated with the Catholicosate of All Armenians, located in Soviet Armenia, and those affiliated with the Catholicosate of Cilicia, near Beirut, though the liturgy has stayed the same. Individual congregations became either entirely Dashnak or anti-Dashnak in their membership, with forcible expulsions and violent fights in some instances. At present there are two Armenian Apostolic Church structures in the United States.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ben Alexander. Contested Memories, Divided Diaspora: Armenian Americans, the Thousand-day Republic, and the Polarized Response to an Archbishop’s Murder. Journal of American Ethnic History, 27.1
- ↑ The New York Times, December 25, 1933. Beaten at church picnic; Archbishop Was Attacked by Gang in Westboro, Mass.
- ↑ The New York Times, December 25, 1933. Slain in 187th st. church; Assassins Swarm About Armenian Prelate and Stab Him.
- ↑ The New York Times, April 10, 1935. Lehman spares lives of Tourian's slayers; gives life imprisonment to pair convicted of killing Armenian primate.
- ↑ The New York Times, July 14, 1934. Nine found guilty in church murder; Two Convicted of Murder and Seven of Manslaughter in Armenian Prelate's Death.
- ↑ The New York Times. Tourian slayers condemned to die; Seven Others, Convicted in the Killing of Archbishop, Get Long Prison Terms.