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Livonia — The relics solemnly placed on an altar Friday evening at the Antiochian Orthodox Basilica of St. Mary represented a tragic history: the estimated 1.5 million lives historians believe were lost in the Armenian genocide about 100 years ago.

That was why more than 1,500 descendants, supporters and religious leaders gathered for a worship service commemorating Martyrs Day, the date on which many scholars believe the Turkish government launched its largest effort to exterminate or expel Armenians.

It was a day of worldwide commemorations.

On Thursday, the Armenian Apostolic Church canonized all victims in a service, declaring them saints.

. Meanwhile, on Thursday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that his nation's ancestors never committed genocide.

At St. Mary's, the focus was recognizing the past while also preparing for the future.

"The truth is that one cannot remain a prisoner of the past, for individuals and peoples need a sort of healing of memories — so that past evils will not come back again," Detroit Catholic Archbishop Allen Vigneron told the overflow crowd during a homily. "This does not mean forgetting past events. It means re-examining them with a new attitude and learning precisely from the experience of suffering that only love can build up, whereas hatred produces devastation. The deadly cycle of revenge must be replaced by the newfound liberty of forgivenesss."

For those of Armenian descent, the trauma brought on by the alleged ethnic cleansing has resonated across decades and distance.

"It was very commonplace for me growing up and all of my other cousins to hear stories about the genocide at the Sunday dinner table," said John Zadikian of Dearborn Heights. "My grandmother used to tell the story about how the soldiers came to her house and took her father and her uncle, and they were never heard from again.

Programs and buttons distributed at the service were fronted with a forget-me-not, a flower selected as the emblem in international centennial observances.

"The Armenian genocide is and was the world's first and most forgotten genocide for the 20th century," Zadikian said. "It's important to Armenians in Metro Detroit and throughout the world that people know what happened to us and that people understand our story and work together from April 25 and beyond to make sure this doesn't happen again to anyone."

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The weight of the tragedy spurred Dennis Moushmoulian, a business owner from Novi, to take time off work and attend the service.

"I felt I owned it to my grandparents who survived and their parents, siblings, aunts and uncles and the rest of the Armenian community that was systematically murdered," he said. "Both my grandparents lost their families and any wealth they had was completely consumed. … Both my grandmothers cried all the time about the families they lost."

Early in the service, 12 candles were lit signifying the major provinces where Armenians perished in 1915.

"This is part of our painful memory of the past," said the Rev. Garabed Kochakian of St. John Armenian Church in Southfield, a committee member and master of ceremonies. "Memory is what makes people's identity live. … This type of remembrance is a cathartic experience for our people. It helps the process of mourning."

Heritage also was visible as attendees left for a reception at the nearby St. Mary's Cultural Center. An outdoor digital art display — projections of iconic Armenian churches and religious symbols produced by area photojournalist Michelle Andonian and visual artist Gabriel Hall of New D Media Arts — illuminated the church's buildings and bell tower.

Later, "100 Years of Endurance: The Story of a Peoples' Struggle for Survival and the Desire for Truth and Reconciliation," a mural depicting the massacres, was unveiled during a packed reception.

Ramela Carman, who lost her parents and many relatives in the incidents, sat beneath the acrylic-painted canvas featuring vivid images of violence, church destruction and death marches.

Through a translator, the 101-year-old said she welcomed the commemoration Friday as a way to unite the community as well as remind others about an horrific episode.

"Nothing can beat this type of a celebration," she said.

Associated Press contributed.

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