When Small is Big: Armenian Evangelicals

Armenian International Magazine (AIM) Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2000, pp. 35-38; 43.

WHEN SMALL IS BIG

Armenian Evangelicals Render a Century and a Half of Service

By Hratch Tchilingirian

Numbering only 50 to 70,000 around the world, Armenian Evangelicals are among the most organized, visible, and active of the world’s eight million-plus Armenians. Despite their small numbers and their periodic conflicts with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the legitimacy, value and mission of the Armenian Evangelical Church has become indisputable over the last century and a half. Just the fact that it is politically incorrect to call them Protestants – they’re  Evangelicals – attests to a change of attitude and acceptance; they are no longer seen as “protesters” but as believers genuinely involved in Christian mission and evangelization.

History

The founding of the Armenian Protestant church goes back to the 19th century during the “intellectual renaissance” that took place among Armenians within the Ottoman Empire. Historians agree that a separate Armenian Protestant denomination was “imported” and “implanted” by European and US missionaries but are divided over the causes and affects of events which led to their establishment.

The first Protestant missionaries sent to the Ottoman Empire were from the Church Missionary Society of the Church of England in 1818 and later by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. In 1831, William Goodell, the first American missionary to arrive in Constantinople, founded the Mission of the American Board for the Armenians of Turkey. Two years later, two native Armenians, John Der-Sahakian and Paul Minassian, joined the mission. Der-Sahakian was appointed general superintendent of the Mission’s high school in Pera. However, in 1837 the school was forced to close due to pressures from the Patriarch Mateos of Constantinople, the Armenian ethnarch in the Ottoman Empire and head of the Armenian Apostolic Church – the “Mother Church.”

Despite the opposition of the Patriarchate, the evangelical movement made considerable headway with a following of about 500 people. The Mother Church protested the activities of the missionaries among the Armenians. Eventually, the confrontation led to a formal excommunication of Protestants by the Patriarch and even persecutions by the Ottoman government authorities.

The missionaries in turn were critical of the Armenian Church. In a report, Goodell wrote, “Like all the Oriental churches, the Armenian [church] had become exceedingly corrupt. It was almost wholly given up to superstition and to idolatrous worship of saints, including the Virgin Mary, pictures, etc. As with all rigid formalities, the weightier matters of the law and the gospel are considered of small account compared with the punctilious performance of religious rites and ceremonies.”

The Protestants stated that their “supreme endeavor was to help the Armenians work out a quiet but genuine reform in their church,” but their gradual attack on the established Apostolic Church lead to fierce confrontations.

Eventually the Protestants sought the protection and intervention of American and European governments to defend their “rights.”

By May 1846, the Evangelicals were authorized to resume their “normal” life as Protestants. This ended the civil persecution of the Protestants.

But a few months later, on the occasion of the feast of Ejmiatsin, Patriarch Mateos issued an encyclical of perpetual condemnation and anathema against all Protestants to be publicly read at every annual return of the festival throughout the churches. Thus, “the reformers,” originally a group within the church, now excluded from the church’s fellowship, formed a rival organization outside the church – the Protestant community.

A constitution was drawn up for the Armenian Evangelical Church, which provided a model of government halfway between Congregationalism and Presbyterianism. On July 1, 1846 the constitution was formally adopted by the evangelicals of Constantinople and the First Armenian Evangelical Church of Constantinople (with a total of 40 members) began.

Within months, a meeting of the “Protestant Nation” (millet) was called in Constantinople and an executive committee of four was appointed to represent the community in its external relations. This committee submitted a petition to the local governor requesting separation from the Armenian community and the granting of a charter. Four petitions were sent to the Sultan in the space of a few months. However, it was only through the intervention of British diplomats that the first imperial acknowledgment was issued on November 15, 1847, recognizing the Protestants of Turkey as a separate community and granting them freedom of conscience and worship. In 1850, again through foreign diplomatic efforts, the rights and privileges of the Protestant community were permanently defined by an imperial firman (edict) and the Protestants were authorized to elect a civil head. Stephen Seropian was the first person chosen for this position.

By the end of 1860, the Protestant Church had grown to 23 mission stations; 65 outstations; 50 missionaries and 50 female assistants; 40 evangelical churches, with a total membership of almost 1,300.

Within three decades, however, the relationship between the Apostolic and Protestant Armenian churches was cordial enough to permit the collaboration on a modern Armenian New Testament, which was published under the Armenian Patriarch’s imprimatur in the 1890s and freely circulated among the Armenians. (Goodell had published the first Bible for Turkish speaking Armenians in 1842 and Elias Riggs published a modern Armenian Bible in 1853.)

The Evangelical Church has come a long way since the controversies surrounding its establishment. As Vahan Tootikian, a prolific minister who resides in Michigan, who currently heads the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America, writes, “When every criticism has been made, and every allowance recorded for the imperfection of the Armenian Evangelical Church, the fact remains that she worked her way into many corners of the life of the Armenian Nation. Obvious faults and weaknesses must not hide the deeper significance of the Evangelical Movement, because measured by its effects, it proved itself a potent force among the Armenian people.”

The Church in the Diaspora

The massacres of Armenians (1895 to 1908) and the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire resulted in the loss of Protestant Armenian leaders as well. The American Board liquidated its 100-year interest in Turkey and withdrew from the field.  Armenian Protestant congregations began to scatter around the world.

Starting in 1923, Armenian Evangelical churches were established in Syria and Lebanon through the efforts of preachers and later in Iran, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus. Churches in America were established much earlier, in the late 19th century, as Armenians from the Ottoman Empire had come to the “new world” for better opportunity.  The first Evangelical church (just as the first Apostolic church) in North America was founded in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Today, there are about 100 Armenian Evangelical churches around the world.

“The Armenian Evangelical Church doesn’t have a hierarchy,” says Rev. Movses Janbazian, Executive Director of the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA).

Unlike the Apostolic and the Catholic Churches, the Evangelicals do not have a supreme head or central headquarters. It is only in recent years that the AMAA, the mission arm of the church, has become the de facto “center” of the church, not through “election” but by acclaim and in recognition of its work on behalf of the Evangelical community. Indeed, at the first ever Armenia-Diaspora Conference last September in Yerevan, where for the first time representatives of the Armenian nation gathered under one roof, Rev. Janbazian represented the Evangelical Church and was seated along with the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches.

The Armenian Evangelical Church is a loose association of five unions (North America, Near East, France, Armenia, Eurasia) and one fellowship (South America) and more recently, another in Eurasia (see chart, next page.) In turn, each Union is an association of local churches in a given geographic area. Membership in a Union by a local congregation is entirely voluntary. The Unions do not dictate over member churches, which are ecclesiastically autonomous and independent. Rather, the Unions coordinate, organize and define conduct for the enhancement of the church’s various ministries.

For example, the constitution of the Near East Union is different from the North America Union, where there is more focus on cooperation than administrative authority. “In the Near East, the Union is more centralized in terms of links between churches, while in North America it is decentralized,” explains Rev. Megerdich Karageozian, President of the Near East Union.

Various Unions have different constitutions and modus operandi and each member church has its own administrative model. “Union bylaws draw from both Congregational and Presbyterian models, but they focus on the Armenian context and the specifics of Armenian communities,” says Rev. Karageozian.

The Union in France presents yet another model. Unlike all other Unions, the French concentrate more on mission than administration. “They have a very good system of exchanging pastors and coordinating their services,” explains Karageozian. In France, every seven to 10 years, pastors go through a mandatory rotation, a procedure not practiced, for example, in Lebanon.

Like other churches, the Armenian Evangelical Church has also experienced decades-long internal and external problems.

Externally, since its establishment, relations with the Armenian Apostolic Church have not been always smooth. While cordial relations were maintained on the formal level, the Armenian Apostolic Church had always seen the Evangelical community as the “separated brethren,” and along with the Catholics, did not consider them “fully Armenian.” In recent years, however, with the changes of circumstances in the Armenian world and as the Evangelical leadership has reaffirmed the place and role of the Apostolic Church as the “Mother Church,”  a better atmosphere and spirit of cooperation has been established.

For religious nationalists, one can not be Armenian and Protestant at the same time. The term Protestant – together with all its distorted mispronunciations: “Porot” for Protestant,  “Bereder” for Brother – is still used in a derogatory sense by some. Still, those who use these divisive terms are unaware that such “national” heroes as Soghomon Tehlirian, who assassinated Genocide architect Talaat Pasha, was a Protestant.

“The distinction between our ‘Armenian’ and ‘Evangelical’ identity was more emphasized in the Middle East by the Apostolics,” says Zaven Khanjian, a Southern California real estate broker who is  active within and outside the Evangelical community. Most recently, Khanjian has taken on the presidency of Armenia Fund Inc. of the Western US. “But in reality the Armenian Evangelicals did not even think about this duality. They were and felt as Armenian as anyone else,” he continues, tracing the roots of the derogatory distinction in the Middle East to Patriarch Mateos’s anathema in the late 19th century.

But, in North America, it is different says Khanjian. “While we are aware of this identity paradox, this is not unique to the Evangelicals, it applies to all Armenians. The fear of assimilation is not a denominational issue.”

Full rapprochement is not anywhere near, but in recent years the Apostolic Church hierarchy and laity have increasingly accepted the legitimacy of the Armenian Evangelical Church. On its part, the Evangelical Church has made it clear that its mission is not “converting” Armenians to the Protestant faith, but the overall spiritual, moral and mental well-being of the Armenian people regardless of their creed.

Perhaps, the most significant endorsement came from the late Catholicos Karekin I of All Armenians when he participated in the Evangelical Church’s 150th anniversary celebrations in Yerevan. The Catholicos praised the ministry of the Evangelical Church in the life of the Armenian nation in the last century and a half and “prayed for the Armenian Evangelicals to become stronger and spread their spiritual values among [the] nation, together with Armenian Apostolic Church.”

Issues of Identity

Internally, local and regional Evangelical congregations have not always agreed on doctrinal, theological or national issues. The freedom of each congregation to follow its own theological and administrative course, has made it virtually impossible to establish a common Armenian Evangelical identity.

“There are Armenian Protestants who do not wish to be called Evangelicals,” explains Khanjian, “because they associate the term with Christian fundamentalism. They’d rather be called Presbyterians or Congregationalists.” Yet, he continues, “The founding fathers of the Armenian Evangelical Church consciously chose to be called Evangelical (literally ‘of the Gospel’, or Avedaranakan) because it best described their belief and mission.”

For years, Khanjian has been one of the strongest supporters of preserving the Armenian identity of the church. He was among those who first pushed for the idea of an Evangelical School. Today, the Charlotte and Elise Merdinian School in Sherman Oaks, California, is the only Evangelical Armenian day school in North America and some 300 students (most from non-Evangelical families) are taught the standard California curriculum, Armenian language and history, as well as religion.

Still, in some areas, some congregations have completely lost their Armenian character. In Argentina, “the Church has lost its Armenian and Evangelical image,” says Rev. Janbazian, who served in Brazil as pastor in the late 1970s. Now a Greek colleague ministers to the Armenian community in Sao Paolo.

“They are aware that they are Armenians. They don’t speak the language very well, yet they feel Armenian. As a visitor you wouldn’t know that they are Armenians, but they identify themselves with Armenians. The Sao Paulo church was one of the first to mobilize aid after the earthquake, they organized volunteers to go to Armenia,” says Janbazian.

In France, worship services are conducted in French and Armenian, and some churches are attended by non-Armenian members.

There are also varying degrees of “Armenian consciousness” among the congregations in North America. Some have assimilated into local Protestant denominations, preserving only the “Armenian” in the name of the church. Others have a mixture of both Armenian and non-Armenian members and preserve a “balance” between the two “cultures.” Still in other churches English is used exclusively as the language for services and preaching. In what is possibly the largest US congregation, the United Armenian Congregational Church (UACC) in Los Angeles, California, earphones were installed in the sanctuary and simultaneous interpretation was instituted as a way of appeasing both Armenian-Americans as well as newcomers from the Middle East.

The US-born Rev. Ron Tovmassian, 43, senior pastor at UACC, doesn’t see any problems in living with two identities. “Armenian is one’s nationality and Christianity is a person’s choice and faith,” he says.

Of the Union’s 28 active clergy in North America, half like Tovmassian, are in their 40s or younger. “Our church serves two purposes: primarily to propagate the Gospel of Christ and to do that ministry in the context of our Armenian heritage,” explains Tovmassian whose father and grandfather were also ministers in the Armenian Evangelical Church.

“AMAA has always emphasized the preservation of the Armenian heritage, including language and culture,” says Janbazian. Yet teaching the Armenian language is not part of the church’s ministry in the US, although some churches such as the Armenian Presbyterian Church in Paramus, New Jersey, do have Saturday Armenian classes.

Apart from the issue of language, Rev. Janbazian considers “loss of Armenian identity” as one of the major issues facing the Armenian Evangelical churches. The other two he mentions are “loss of spiritual zeal” and “a decline of strong sense of commitment to mission of the Armenian Evangelical church.”

The comments of Michael Agbabian, 29, a television and film producer, stand in stark contrast to Janbazian’s concerns, however. Agbabian, the grandson of two pastors, is active in the Evangelical community. “I feel more comfortable in that environment. It’s more casual. It’s in plain English. I get the message,” he says. His involvement does not end with the church, either. “The younger people in the Evangelical community are usually in that circle only. I am more  involved in other things as well, such as the AGBU and the Armenian Assembly,” says Agbabian, continuing, “but I am not the norm.” Still, he says he has noticed “there is a growing group of junior high/high school aged people coming to [the United Armenian Congregational Church] who are active in youth programs. I think that is cool.”

This more liberal, consensual and accommodating organizational model of the Armenian Evangelicals can be considered one of the most significant elements of their success. At the beginning of the new millennium and in the age of globalization, the Armenian Evangelical Church seems to be ahead of all other Armenian organizations: organizationally decentralized but unified in mission. This is in contrast to other religious, political and civic organizations with very strong chains of command.

The Armenian Evangelicals have also been among the pioneers of education in post-genocide Armenian communities, especially in the Middle East. The establishment and support of schools is part of the Armenian Evangelical “culture.” The fact that most of their students come from non-Evangelical families has been a factor in the improvement of relations between the Evangelical and Apostolic communities.

AMAA

Contrary to popular perception, the Armenian Missionary Association of America, the AMAA, established in Worcester in 1918, is not a church, but an association which implements the “common mission” of the evangelical churches. It’s supported by congregations in other countries, as well.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Armenian Evangelicals have kept step with the times. With AMAA’s help, three new unions were founded to better serve the needs of their congregations: the 50 church and fellowship Union of Armenia, the Union of Eurasia, which includes congregations in Russia and Georgia, and the recently established Fellowship of Armenian Evangelical Churches of Europe, embracing congregations in Eastern Europe.

The AMAA’s mission focuses on charity, education, financial assistance and “the spiritual growth and development of the Armenian people.”  And not just the Armenian people. “When there is a major disaster with great tragic consequences, we as a Christian organization and as an organization of a people who has suffered a lot and enjoyed the assistance of others in the past, show solidarity with other nations’ disasters. Thank God we can do it; we can help others because we are well off now,” says Janbazian and cites recent assistance to earthquake and flood victims from Colombia to Nepal to Cameroon.

Colleague agencies present the AMAA with requests for funding and “we participate with one time gifts,” explains Janbazian. The cooperation doesn’t stop there. In the spirit of Christian reciprocity, “they help us with projects in Armenia,” he continues.

But there is no argument that the bulk of the AMAA’s resources go to Armenian causes, and to Armenia. Since the 1988 and especially after Armenia’s independence, the Armenian Evangelical Church, through the AMAA has sent about $1.5 million in aid to Armenia annually, according to Janbazian. To enhance its long term commitment to assisting Armenia, it has established an office in Yerevan where some 38 local and Diaspora staff members implement the church’s projects, which concentrate on humanitarian aid, relief, education, and construction. One of the largest projects of the organization is the sponsorship of 2,100 orphans who are given food and clothing on a regular basis (see AIM, February 1998.)

“Our people is a responsive people, no matter what their walk of life. If you explain things to them clearly, with a clear project, they respond. We don’t have problems raising funds for Armenia,”  says Rev. Janbazian. The AMAA’s budget this year is $5.2 million. It’s met largely through income from endowment funds and investments. The rest comes from donations.

If anyone still had doubts about the “Armenianness” of the Evangelical Church, Rev. Janbazian’s statement at the Armenia-Diaspora Conference last September tried to put the issue to rest once and for all. He expressed the Armenian Evangelical Church’s wish and support for Karabakh’s liberation and independence, for the defense and security of Armenia, for the creation of conditions for political stability and a democratic system of government in Armenia, for a vitalized Armenian economy, for reform and modernity in Armenia’s educational system and for Armenian genocide recognition by a greater number of nations and international bodies.

Mission Continues

This combination of patriotism and national aspirations could have come from either of the Apostolic church leaders present at the Conference. What made Janbazian’s speech “typically” Evangelical was his call for a return to the “former spiritual values” and “the faith” of the nation’s ancestry. Rather than a narrow denominational understanding, he gave a wider, ecumenical definition to the mission of the Armenian nation. “In 301 AD, our forebears made a covenant with Jesus Christ. If we fulfill our commitment to that covenant, then God will abundantly bless our small but precious nation, and He will make our nation a source of blessings not only to its sons and daughters, but also to its neighboring peoples and to all humanity. We believe this is our nation’s reason for being; this is our people’s mission in the world; and this is the God-ordained destiny of our Haigazian [Armenian] race.”

Hratch Tchilingirian
2000-01-01
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