UPDATED: Wednesday, April 15, 2015
In Turkey, genocide is a fighting word. Three days after Pope Francis publicly labeled the brutal slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians as "the first genocide of the 20th century," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, condemned the pontiff's remarks.
"It is out of the question," Erdogan said, "for there to be a stain, a shadow called genocide on Turkey." Today the European Union is due to debate and vote on a resolution to recognize the 100th aniversary of the genocide. At a press conference in Ankara, Erdogan said, "Whatever decision the European Parliament takes on Armenian genocide claims, it would go in one ear and out the other."
Pope Francis commented on the killing of Armenians on Sunday at the Vatican saying "concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it." The comments were made during Mass in the Armenian Catholic rite, held at St. Peter's Basilica.
This year the genocide anniversary will be commemorated on April 24. The killing took place from 1915 to 1923, and 1.5 million people were executed or massacred or died from starvation, torture, or disease.
The phrase “crimes against humanity” was first used to detail the carnage, which many scholars and historians label genocide. During World War I, killing Armenians was the official policy of Ottoman rulers, who suspected Armenians of supporting Imperial Russia, one of their long-standing adversaries. (At that time, the Ottomans ruled western Armenia, and Russia ruled the smaller eastern region.)
“A campaign of race extermination is in progress,” Henry Morgenthau, US ambassador to Turkey, said in a telegram to the State Department on July 16, 1915. Turkish soldiers took all males ages 12 and older from their villages and executed most of them. They sent women, children, and the elderly to concentration camps and the deserts, allowing them to starve by the tens of thousands. About 200,000 were forcibly converted to Islam and had their names changed.
The Ottoman government confiscated churches, monasteries, farms, businesses, and money. Dozens of eyewitness accounts were published at the time. But Western nations did little to stop the slaughter, which Armenians call Meds Yeghern (“the Great Catastrophe”). Nearly all the fatalities occurred in Turkey or border areas. The mass killing of Armenians was so well known in Europe that many scholars believe Hitler referred to it one week before invading Poland in 1939.
The Ottoman Empire’s extermination campaign ultimately failed. Today, Armenia is an independent nation about the size of Maryland. The Armenian diaspora now numbers close to 10 million, including some who live in Turkey. The Armenian church lives on in hundreds of congregations worldwide. (In the third century, Armenia was the first nation to accept Christianity as its national faith.) Countless family lines were not extinguished. The Hovsepians—my family—are numbered among them.
In 1919, my great-grandfather, Vartan Deumbekjian, married a teenage war widow, Annig, who had a 4-year-old daughter, Osanna. Vartan joined the Armenian freedom fighters and remained behind in their village. A pregnant Annig and Osanna joined the refugees fleeing to a safer place. Hungry and barefoot, they walked for about a month, crossing the mountains and eventually reaching a harbor from which they sailed to Greece.
Armenian children grow up hearing tragic stories of the war. But because my grandparents and parents were born in Turkey, Egypt, and Greece, and I was born in Canada, I was never drawn to my ancestral homeland of Armenia. Neither was my father, Joseph Hovsepian—until he was almost 70.
In 2008, my mother visited Armenia to reconnect with childhood friends. My father, pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Montreal, joined her, hoping to connect with local pastors in Yerevan, the capital. Though majority-Christian, Armenia is a spiritually thirsty land.
Since then, my father has returned to Armenia four times. He’s brought clothing, medicine, reading glasses, gospel tracts, and books he authored, and has developed solid relationships with many pastors. Local Christians have taken my father from home to home to counsel and pray with people.
His efforts became a puzzle piece in the still unfolding picture of the gospel-based reawakening of Armenia’s soul—one person, one household, and one church at a time. The reawakening is happening amid fresh violence: Last September, fighters from the Islamic State blew up the Armenian genocide memorial complex in Der Zor, Syria—close to the site where Armenian refugees had been forced to march to their deaths in 1915.
To this day, Turkey’s government refuses to recognize the mass killings as genocide because 5 million perished during the war—Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Turkey also pressures Western allies not to categorize it as genocide, and many nations, including the United States, don’t in any official way. Such “denialism” means Armenians struggle to gain a hearing for the crimes against their ancestors. The genocide’s perpetrators were never convicted.
Because of this, many Armenians lost their faith or were influenced by communism or secularism. “The genocide has scarred all Armenians,” said my father. “Many still blame God. Some have become atheists. Our aim is to rekindle their spiritual heritage.”
Reviving a Spiritual Past
About 32 percent of Armenia’s population is poor. A family's plight is even worse if a widow is the head of household and one of her children has a disability. Annie, 17, lives in a family like that with her mother, two siblings, and her grandmother in Sayat Nova, a town in southwest Armenia.
When Annie’s mother was pregnant with her youngest child, Mary, her husband killed himself. He’d had an affair with a woman, who became pregnant. Unable to face the fact that he had broken his marriage vows, he took a lethal dose of poison. Annie’s mother was overwhelmed, faced with adultery and suicide all at once. The stress caused severe health problems. Mary was born with multiple disabilities and is unable to walk.
Annie’s mother had a family to support but few ways to earn a living wage. Her grandmother was in shock over the loss of her son and the condition of her grandchild. Annie was depressed and withdrawn. “I did not want to talk to anyone,” she said.
Then Annie read a book my father had written. After meditating on its message, she was overcome. “I had suffered from the thought, I don’t have an earthly father,” Annie said. “Suddenly, God told me that he is my friend, my Father, and my Lord and Savior.”
Some weeks after Annie’s conversion last summer, my father and I arrived in Armenia to minister through local churches. Annie was ready for baptism. A natural evangelist, she already had introduced her best friend to Christ. Then my father shared the gospel with Annie’s grandmother, who agreed she needed Jesus.
This one-to-one grassroots outreach is effective across the board in Armenia. Larger ministries such as Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) also use it in urban settings. Cru arrived in Armenia 16 years ago, about 9 years after the nation gained its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Vardan Blbulyan, the Armenian national leader of Cru, said the ministry’s goals are to build relationships among churches and ministries, multiply disciples, and, when possible, befriend Muslim neighbors in the region. “At the end of the 18th century, Turkey wanted to make Armenia an Islamic country,” he said. “Islamic people thought of Armenians as a bone in their throats.” But today Armenia and Georgia are the only Christian-majority nations in the region. Relations with Turkey continue to be poor.
From 1922 to 1991, the Soviet Union ruled Armenia and suppressed the church. But in 1988, an under-the-radar revival among Armenians began that grew many congregations and launched new ones. It occurred around the time of the devastating earthquake in Spitak that killed about 30,000 people. During those years, Blbulyan came to know Christ. “It was as if the earthquake destroyed the gates and the Holy Spirit’s wind began to blow in Armenia.”
Since independence in 1991, Armenia has struggled economically and spiritually. American researcher Anie Kalayjian has found evidence that the postgenocide generation of diaspora Armenians struggles with anxiety, “inherited anger,” and helplessness. “The scar is there,” said my father. “We acknowledge the genocide and then bring people the good news of the love of God. The spiritual past of the Armenians who were persecuted needs to be revived.”
“Today there are signs of spiritual revival again in Armenia,” said Blbulyan. “The number of believers is increasing, and people are responding to God’s Word.” More than 90 percent of Armenia’s population is culturally Christian. The majority belong to the Apostolic Church; a minority are Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or evangelical. Operation World estimates that, while there is an annual decline of 0.3 percent among Christians in general, evangelicals are seeing a 1.4 percent growth per year.
As one of the most influential Protestant missions, Cru has organized its outreach under the banner of the New Life Armenia movement. In its 16 years of operation, it has seen steady growth and sponsored more than 1,000 events and operates 28 fellowship groups, organized generationally. The movement has created new relationships with other Christian groups for coordinating outreach.
More than 8,000 young adults have made decisions to follow Christ through these efforts. “People who come to Christ through New Life Armenia can choose which church to attend,” said Blbulyan. “New Life Armenia is like a bridge between different churches, organizations, and people. We don’t compete but cooperate. My motto is: success needs everyone.”
‘God Has Visited You’
Those individuals who respond to the gospel are returning to church in greater Yerevan and its surrounding villages. Pastor Tigran Muradyan serves with his wife, Valya, and their teenage son, Timothy, in Horom, a farming community about two hours outside Yerevan.
Village life is hard all year round. The hot, typically rainless summers dry out the countryside. Women and children are plentiful, but men are scarce. Husbands and fathers who once provided for their families through farming have gone to Russia for work. A few men return home occasionally; others remarry and never return.
The Muradyans live like their neighbors. They have no running water in their house, which they heat with a wood-burning stove. Their church is heated by burning dung bricks. They grow their own food and don’t own a car. Valya disburses funds that church members give to help local families. One impoverished family, a mother with three preteens, lives in a rusty rectangular container, a remnant of the Soviet era, with one door and two windows. The family, abandoned by the father, responded to the Muradyans’ invitation to attend church and Sunday school. Over time, they all decided to follow Christ.
But gospel outreach at the grassroots rarely goes so smoothly. Muradyan said many Armenians already see themselves as Christians. The challenge is to help them see Christianity as a living faith, not just a cultural tradition. “Few have any idea about being born again. If you ask them whether they have eternal life, you will get many confused responses,” he said. “Our people know how to endure, but they forget that God is the one who has rescued them.”
Last year, my father helped the church in Horom renovate its building to provide a warmer, safer worship space during the winters. He never expected that financing the rebuilding of a rundown structure would bring spiritual reawakening. Laborers from 16 families managed to find work because of the renovation project and have been able to take care of their families’ needs. Many Horom villagers watched the renovation. One said, “God has again visited you.”
Grief and Celebration
Personal testimonies and addressing unmet spiritual needs are crucial for spreading the gospel in Armenia. “Every single Armenian needs a unique approach,” said Blbulyan. “You have to reach each person in his safe environment. When you share the gospel with your friend, that friend will share it with his friend.”
After a baptismal service for five people in Horom last summer, an elderly woman who said she was an atheist publicly challenged my father for half an hour. She gradually let down her guard and suggested she might yet become a believer. “Perhaps I am a lost sheep,” she declared. Another woman, bedridden for ten months, covered in open sores and close to death, listened to him explain the gospel. She was barely able to speak but managed to call out to God to forgive her sins.
Evangelizing a postgenocide people group is not comfortable or easy, but it can be fruitful. “I’m a child of genocide, but I have not allowed the genocide to hinder my future,” said my father. “I believe God will raise workers to rekindle the flame of the gospel in Armenia.”
On April 24 and 25, millions of Armenians around the world will grieve the horrors of 1915 and recall the names of lost ancestors. But in places like Horom, believers will also look toward their future: renewed life in Christ.
Ann-Margret Hovsepian, author of three devotional books for preteen girls, is a women’s ministry leader at Temple Baptist Church in Montreal. Her latest book, Truth, Dare, Double Dare, was published in 2014.
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