Archbishop Leon Tourian (1 January 1879 - 24 December 1933) was the primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. He was assassinated in New York City by his political opponents.
Ghevont Tourian was born 1 January 1879 in Istanbul, Ottoman Empire. 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, United Kingdom.
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 the 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 Etchmiadzin, within the borders of Soviet Armenia, and the Catholicos of All Armenians felt bound to keep peace with Soviet authorities.
However the members of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), known 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 five ARF members in Worcester, Massachusetts. Two of the attackers were convicted. After this incident Tourian hired a bodyguard.
The conflict climaxed on December 24, 1933, when several men attacked Tourian in the Church of the Holy Cross, in 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 the archbishop passed at the end of the procession the fifth row of 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 the assailants stabbed Tourian with large butcher knives, and once the archbishop fell, the attackers scattered and mixed with the crowd. Two of the assailants were seized by the parishioners, beaten, and subsequently handed over to the police.
The police soon apprehended the other seven assailants, who were all ARF members. On July 14, 1934, after a trial that lasted five weeks, two of them, Mateos Leylegian and Nishan Sarkisian, were found guilty of first degree murder, and the other seven 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 Armenian followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church became split between local churches affiliated with the Catholicosate of All Armenians (Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin), located at the time in Soviet Armenia, and those affiliated with the Catholicosate of Cilicia, in Antelias, near Beirut, Lebanon, 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. For decades to come, Armenians of the Dashnak persuasion would hold the nine Dashnak defendants to be innocent scapegoats and Archbishop Tourian to be a traitor to his nation, while non-Dashnak Armenians would consider the nine suspects and the entire Dashnak party responsible for the crime.
At present there are two Armenian church structures in the United States: the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, which is divided into the Eastern and Western Dioceses of the Armenian Church of America; and the Holy See of Cilicia, which is divided into the Eastern and Western Prelacies of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America.
- Alexander, Ben. "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
- "Beaten at church picnic; Archbishop Was Attacked by Gang in Westboro, Mass" New York Times (December 25, 1933)
- "Slain in 187th st. church; Assassins Swarm About Armenian Prelate and Stab Him" New York Times (December 25, 1933)
- "Lehman spares lives of Tourian's slayers; gives life imprisonment to pair convicted of killing Armenian primate" New York Times (April 10, 1935)
- "Nine found guilty in church murder; Two Convicted of Murder and Seven of Manslaughter in Armenian Prelate's Death" New York Times (July 14, 1934)
- "Tourian slayers condemned to die; Seven Others, Convicted in the Killing of Archbishop, Get Long Prison Terms" New York Times (July 25, 1934)