Thousands of Armenian-Americans rallied in Times Square Sunday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian massacre, in which as many as 1.5 million men, women and children were killed.

The killing of the ethnic minority Armenians was perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, which the successor Turkish government denies is the 20th century's first diaspora.

The children and grandchildren of Armenian massacre survivors, many of whom have forebears who immigrated to the United States, held red carnations and signs that read "Turkey is Guilty of Genocide."

They draped themselves in the Armenian flag and painted the flag's colors -- red, blue and yellow -- on their cheeks and clothing at the commemoration.

Young children and teenagers danced to the folkloric music of their ancestors. "Look at our youth, who have it better than we ever did," Harry Keleshian, a retired real estate investor from Greenwich, Connecticut, said.

Keleshian, however, also remembered his father, who was from the village of Everek, now part of Turkey, but was forced at age 9 with his family "to march, march, march" with thousands into the Syrian desert, where they were left to die.

"My father's sister starved to death," he said. "My father arrived to Ellis Island after he caught a ship in Marseille, France. When he set foot in this country he was 15 years old and he never left. He always said, 'I love this country,' "

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Dr. Louis M. Najarian, 72, of Manhasset, a psychiatrist and professor at Hofstra University, said remembering the massacre "is in the blood. We are alive because they survived."

The 100th anniversary comes with "mixed feelings," he said. "We have accomplished, but there is more to be done," said Najarian, who has returned to his family's ancestral village of Govdoon in eastern Turkey, part of historic Armenia, several times.

Najarian said not only is a global recognition of the massacre imperative, but also efforts to reclaim the lands that were taken from the 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians who were expelled during World War I.

Najarian's great-grandparents were separated during the diaspora and their children died. But they were reunited in the United States in Providence, Rhode Island, where the couple rebuilt their lives with the births of three more children. Their story, he said, "is who we are. It is our identity."

Pride and frustration enveloped the rally's mood, as Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, reminded the crowd of the "denial" of the Turkish government to acknowledge the massacre and the "silence" of President Barack Obama, who has not used the word genocide, as ethnic Armenians call the massacre, to describe the historic event.

@Newsday

"It's outrageous," said Choloyan, whose remarks were received with a roar of applause and whistles.

Choloyan acknowledged the refugee programs sponsored by the American government during World War I that brought thousands of Armenians to the United States.

He praised the United States for its welcome. "Thank you. You gave us these fertile soils for our families. We have much to be thankful for this miraculous rebirth, but we must also be the instrument of peace and justice."