The First Christian Country in the World: Part II | Nations

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20th February 2024

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The First Christian Country in the World: Part II

Armenia’s Ancient Christian Heritage & Why It Matters Today

Last week, we published Part 1 of Armenian’s history as the First Christian Country in the World. Here, we continue the story by exploring the various factors that have shaped what Christianity looks like in Armenia today—starting with the Armenian genocide.

Medz Yeghern: The Great Crime 

The Armenian genocide occurred from 1915-1923 during and after World War I, when the Ottoman Empire declared a plan to crush Armenia. Out of fear that historic eastern Armenia, Anatolia, would become independent, Ottoman leaders decided to decrease the Armenian population to five percent while resettling Muslims in their land. 

We have been blamed for not making a distinction between guilty and innocent Armenians,” said Talaat Pasha, leader of the Ottoman Empire, in a 1915 article for the German publication Berliner Tageblatt. “[To do so] was impossible. Because of the nature of things, one who was still innocent today could be guilty tomorrow. The concern for the safety of Turkey simply had to silence all other concerns. Our actions were determined by national and historical necessity.”

The Ottoman Empire thus began the systematic murder and deportation of Armenians through massacres, forced labor, and death marches leading to the Syrian Desert. This resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians and the destruction of two millennia worth of Armenian civilization in Western Armenia (land that is now considered part of Turkey.)

The priests and intellectuals were the first to die.

“The priesthood was essentially destroyed,” Craig said. “That’s not to say all priests were killed, but a significant number were. The spiritual leaders of the country were destroyed—both men and women, no one was spared.”

This was compounded upon during the 1920 Bolshevik Revolution and ensuing persecution against Orthodox priests from the Soviet Union. Thousands of priests were killed. In late 1920, local communists came to power, and in 1922, Armenia became The Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. The official doctrine of the state was declared “scientific atheism,” and all other religious practices were discouraged and discriminated against. According to the documents found in the Communist Party Archive in Yerevan, the Armenian church went from having 450 active churches to 38.

“Vast Church properties were lost, priests were exiled or executed, assets and treasures of Ejmiatsin were confiscated and the Church was stripped bare to its liturgical functions,” writes historian Dr. Hratch Tchilingirian in “In Search of Relevance: Church and Religion in Armenia since Independence.”

Historian Felix Corley described the church of Soviet Armenia as “reduced to just a remnant of its former glory.”

While there was the physical loss of priests, churches, and assets of the Armenian church, there was a spiritual loss as well. Over the 70 years of the Soviet government, many of the “priests” appointed were actually members of the Russian secret police, the KGB. The church leaders were no longer people who loved Jesus—they were people to be feared.

This damage to the church is still apparent today, Craig said. Many older pastors who grew up during that time have told him that they learned to see priests as thieves and dishonest men, cloaked in frightening long black robes.

“Of course, they weren’t all thieves, but they didn’t have a great reputation because they weren’t particularly spiritual people,” Craig said. “So the spiritual temperature in the country just plummeted.”

And yet, as it had for centuries, Christianity survived. In an interview for a 1985 Los Angeles Times article titled, “Church ‘Coexists’ with Communism in Soviet Armenia,” Bishop Nerses Bozabalian stated that Christianity would not and could not disappear.

“Christianity is completely intertwined with the history of our nation,” the bishop wrote. “Somehow, it’s in our blood and bones.”

Resilience, Renewal & Reconciliation

Besides the suppression of the Armenian Apostolic Church during the 70 years of Soviet rule, two other notable events were happening at this time that would have an effect on the state of Christianity in Armenia today; the introduction of evangelism and Pentecostalism, and the development of the Armenian diaspora. 

During the 1960’s-70’s, Armenia saw the rise of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity—spurred on through missionaries from Russia and the Armenian diaspora. A revival began, independently of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and began to spread. Today, Pentecostalism is the fastest growing church in Armenia.

Meanwhile, Armenian culture was continuing to flourish in communities all over the world through the Armenian diaspora. During the genocide, fleeing Armenians formed large communities in Russia, Canada, and the United States, with other Armenians settling everywhere from Europe to South America to Asia. The Armenian diaspora now comprises over 5 million people—there are more Armenians living outside of Armenia than in it.

As a child, Rosemary’s grandfather fled to the U.S. with his mother during the genocide, settling first in the East Coast and then later moving to Los Angeles as an adult. His extended family stayed on the East Coast, which is where Craig was born and raised in an Armenian community. There, Craig was baptized into the Armenian Apostolic Church and was raised attending mass.

“After the genocide, diasporan Armenians gathered together and started churches, and those churches became our community center,” Craig said. “It was a very special part of our lives, because it’s where we gathered. So I have a lot of wonderful feelings towards the Armenian Church.”

Now, as an evangelical Christian living in Armenia, Craig finds he has the ability to understand the two sides of Armenian Christianity. He acknowledges that he doesn’t agree with everything that the Armenian Apostolic church preaches, but that that doesn’t bother him. There are things he sees that the Armenian Church gets right that evangelicism doesn’t, and vice versa.

“I find myself in a unique position, where I can see both worlds,” he said.

It’s an important perspective for a country in need of unity. Because what Craig is seeing is that the Armenian Apostolic Church, which still suffers from the bad reputation given to it during the Soviet era, has not seen the reformation it needs to reach the Armenians of today. The liturgy is given in an old dialect of Armenian only understood by the priests. Many attend the services and don’t know what’s going on, and most people only attend on Easter or special holidays.

“Armenians will define themselves as Christians,” Craig said, “But many of them don’t know what that means.”

In the Armenian Church, Craig explains, there is little to no evangelizing. Even at the services, should you attend, there is rarely someone with whom you can speak or find mentorship. And while there is a growing movement of evangelical churches that hope to make Christianity more approachable, there is still tension between them and the greater institution of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

“Historically, they [the Armenian Church] have seen evangelicals as a sect at best and a cult at worst,” Craig said. “So finding ways of building bridges with the Apostolic Church is not an easy thing. It’s very hard for them to know how to relate.”

It’s a challenge that Craig and the leadership at Yerevan International Church are actively working to address—starting with relationships. 

Back in the quiet at St. Hripsime church, we meet the priest for the baptism ceremony, a man named Gabriel. He’s wearing the traditional Armenian Apostolic long black robe, with a gold and white cloak draped over his shoulders and a miter on his head, a pointed black headpiece that hangs almost over his eyes. 

He offers a warm smile as he approaches us and asks, “Where’s your cross?”

We look at each other, confused. Apparently, we are meant to have a decorative cross from home to hold with us. Thankfully, Gabriel, who is a friend of Craig’s, laughs it off. “We have plenty here for you,” he says.

During the ceremony, Gabriel pauses after the Armenian liturgy to translate what he’s saying into English. This oil represents the Holy Spirit. Facing this way, towards the door, means you are casting out your sin. Now turning back to face the cross, represents being born again in Christ.

“Do you understand?” he says kindly. We do.

Craig explains later that breaking up the liturgy to translate like that would be frowned upon by some leaders in the Armenian Church.

“He did that to honor us,” Craig said.

After the ceremony, Gabriel invites us down to his office, a thousand-year-old stone room, for coffee and plums plucked from trees in the garden. He tells us of his upcoming plans to go serve in Damascus. It is hard to leave, he says, especially when so many are still hurting.

“Many priests were lost during the war,” he says, referencing the Nagorno-Karabakh war which Armenia fought for 44 days at the end of 2020. Priests were on the frontlines, bringing supplies, ministering to soldiers, and sometimes fighting themselves. Over 4,000 soldiers were lost.

“We will be praying for you while you are away,” Craig says. “We’ll miss you here. You’re a great friend.”

Gabriel smiles, and the two shake hands before we leave. It’s a friendship I don’t realize the significance of right away, but the moment now stands out as important—an Armenian Apostolic priest and an Armenian-American evangelical pastor, united by a shared love for Jesus and respect for the other.

A City on a Hill

Armenia is no stranger to the power of reconciliation and healing. As Craig seeks to build bridges, he often thinks of how Gregory the Illuminator himself traveled to Armenia hoping to reconcile with the king after the death of his father.

“You have this man whose father was killed by this other man’s father, and they reconciled and became friends,” Craig said. “And the king was healed both emotionally and physically by the power of the Holy Spirit. So you have healing and reconciliation… so much birthed into the church right from the beginning that’s meaningful and is very contemporary. And the need is so real today.”

Unity is growing between the churches, encouraged, in part, by the 2020 war. After the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting, evangelical leaders worked with priests to form a chaplaincy in the Armenian military. It was evangelicals who trained the chaplains, Craig said, and equipped them for the frontlines.

“This was a big deal because a lot of people did come to appreciate the Armenian church a bit more seeing that the priests were there with the troops,” he said.

Now, Craig is working to help bring trauma therapy to the Armenian church to provide healing for those that were in the war. Recently, he and others drafted a proposal that would include 30 participants from the government of Artsakh, 30 Armenian Apostolic priests and chaplains, and 30 evangelical pastors in efforts to provide trauma training to the church and Artsakh community. They hit a setback, however, when the Armenian Apostolic church would not join. Despite the disappointment, Craig and the other church leaders are continuing their efforts to bring a module in war trauma therapy to the Apostolic chaplains.

“We’re always looking to find ways to build bridges,” Craig said. “Because when I envision the future for Armenia, reaching a million people within the next ten years—I don’t envision doing that without the Armenian Apostolic Church being a part of it.”

The time for growing the Church is now. As threats of war continue to come in from the border, Armenians are in need of a reason to stay. And it’s very important that Armenia stays, Craig said. Without Armenia, for instance, Turkey would have the geographical unity to create a revived Ottoman Empire—a vision that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated is the goal.  

Armenia’s absence would also significantly impact the power balance of the Islamic world, Craig said. If you draw a concentric circle around Armenia, you’ll find many major Islamic countries are within a two-hour flight; Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan. While this creates tension between Armenia and some of its neighbors, it also positions Armenia as a uniquely strategic location for teaching, equipping and sharing the gospel to the nations in a powerful way. It’s why Craig, Joyce, and many other leaders in the church decided to move to Armenia.

“Missiologically speaking, I really believe that God is raising up people from this nation to go out into the nations,” Craig said. “Armenia is a central, strategic place. We really do want to see the light and love of Jesus touch the Muslim world, and we felt God was calling us to come here and mobilize, and equip, and release the Armenian church into the world around us.”

All of this points to something Craig, and other church leaders in Armenia, have long felt to be true —that this small, seemingly insignificant country of 2.9 million people has served and will serve a unique purpose in God’s Kingdom. Perhaps it goes back to Gregory the Illuminator, who had a vision of an angel hitting Armenian soil with a golden hammer, a confirmation that this was where he needed to build the Church. Perhaps it goes back all the way to Mount Ararat, Armenia’s symbolic heart, which God chose as the resting place for Noah’s Ark. Perhaps this country, the land of bountiful harvest and clean, fresh water that runs down from Lake Sevan, was once the Garden of Eden itself. One thing the stories tell us is clear—the spiritual significance of this land, and its people, goes back to the beginning.

“Armenia has survived 3,500 years. That’s not an accident,” Craig said. “It’s not because we were stronger than all the others, or had the best kings, or the strongest generals. A secularist might mock an answer like this—but I just can’t help but believe it’s because Armenia has a bigger purpose in the world. I believe that Armenia is meant to be a light in the darkness, and a city on a hill. I think that’s why we’re here, and that’s why we have survived.”

Today, Armenia and Armenian Christianity continue in the fight to survive. Armenian people are yearning to understand once again what it means to be a Christian—not just in name, but in spirit. Everywhere Craig travels and preaches, he and Joyce see an abundance of spiritual fruit, and an openness to the gospel. Amidst the generational trauma from the genocide, amidst Turkey and Azerbaijan threatening the borders, amidst earthquakes, poverty, and fear of the future…the gospel continues to take hold in Armenia.

“I’m frustrated at times, but I’m not discouraged,” Craig said. “I’m incredibly excited really, because there is such an openness here. Wherever we go, there is fruit. That’s why we’re staying…because there is a cause worth living for, a cause worth dying for, here.”

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Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels is a writer and journalist interested in covering how the Holy Spirit is moving around the world. With her storytelling, she seeks to unveil the beauty of God in other cultures and in each other—invoking a sense of awe, unity, and delight at what an adventure it is to follow Christ.