The Evangelicals in Armenia: On the Road to Pluralism

Armenian International Magazine AIM Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2000, pp. 52-53

The Evangelicals in Armenia: On the Road to Pluralism

By Hratch Tchilingirian

Reverend Movses Janbazian of the Armenian Missionary Association of America reminisces about his various relief missions to Armenia.

“In 1994, we received a call to send infant formula. We coordinated it with Harut Sassounian of the United Armenian Fund, we put forward a large sum and found about 160 tons of baby formula. I went to Europe and it was air lifted from there in eight airlifts.

“The Minister of Health had called volunteers to download the products. Armenia was freezing and it was cut off from the world. The first day I saw these thin people working hard without eating. On the way back to Amsterdam, I asked the pilot to bring more sandwiches from the airport catering service. He brought a lot of them. We distributed them to the workers. I saw that an old man put one in his pocket. I said to him, ‘why don’t you eat it?’ He said I have a grandson at home. The thin, old man working in the snow, cold, hungry, saved the little sandwich for his grandson. I will never forget this.”

It is stories like this that explain the Diaspora’s continuing humanitarian assistance to Armenia.

In that huge endeavor, the Armenian Evangelical community has a well-defined niche.

Soon after Armenia’s independence, the remnants of the only two Armenian Evangelical communities in Soviet Armenia – the Baptists and the Evangelicals which were forced to merge and register as one community in the Soviet period – came out into the open and began to reorganize. In 1994, they formally registered with the government and in 1995, they established the Union of Evangelical Churches in Armenia with some 50 churches and fellowships and almost two dozen native clergymen.

The Pentecostals are not part of the Union and are affiliated with their “home” churches in the US and Sweden. They also have theological differences with other Evangelicals, such as the emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian. Many Pentecostals believe that “administrative cooperation” with other churches or a Union would imply theological compromise and impede their autonomy.

The organizational model for the Union in Armenia “is a mixture of the Unions in the US and Lebanon,” says Rev. Rene Leonian, 48, who is AMAA’s representative in Armenia and President of the Union of Eurasia. “The Church in Armenia is loosely centralized, but each local community is autonomous,” he says. It is centralized in general organizational issues and in determining the criteria for ordination of clergy, but each congregation is “autonomous in theological issues” and has “total freedom” in conducting their internal affairs, explains Leonian.

The Union coordinates the church’s Christian education program for all ages. It offers weekly programs for youth in sports, arts, crafts, choirs, musical bands and Bible studies in 35 centers throughout Armenia where thousands of children take part.

The Union also helps local congregations become self-sufficient with worship places and resources to conduct their ministries. The majority of the congregations in Armenia rent buildings for worship. The first church building erected after independence was in Stepanavan, a northern town severely damaged during the 1988 earthquake.

“We help in the organization of communities and make sure they have acceptable conditions to have qualified clergy with proper theological education,” says Leonian, who has been serving in Armenia since 1994.

Indeed, in order to provide qualified ministers for the church’s ministries in Armenia, in 1997 the Union established a theological seminary in Yerevan, with a four-year Bachelors degree program and a two-year Masters program. There is also a two-year Christian Education program for both male and female students.

Currently some 40 students, mostly natives of Armenia and some from Georgia, study the Bible, theology, history, psychology and sociology. One third of the faculty are from Armenia and two-thirds from the Diaspora – Lebanon, France and the US. Recently, one student was sent to the Fuller Theological School in Pasadena, California, and another to the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, to further their education.

Rev. Leonian, who holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Lyon, France, and a second doctorate in education, is the dean of the seminary, and draws upon his decades-long pastoral experience in the courses he teaches. Ordained at the age of 22, Leonian served Armenian congregations in Lyon and Paris for 19 years and was the chaplain of the largest prison in Paris. From 1993 to 1994, Leonian was chief of staff at the Armenian Embassy in Paris and was instrumental in the establishment of the embassy. His pharmacist wife, Sylvie, also serves in Armenia at the church’s medical clinic in Yerevan.

“In view of the many social and moral problems in our society in Armenia, Christianity should become a part of family life again,” says Rev. Leonian, who preaches every Sunday at a rented hall on Bagramian Street in Yerevan, where on average some 300 worshippers attend the services. Some pastors preach in Eastern Armenian, others in Western. All try to make religion relevant to people’s lives.

“We need to explain not only what religion is, but what faith is. People are thirsty for spiritual nourishment,” says Leonian.

But he warns that Christianity should not be presented as another “belief system.” “The Soviet system collapsed and with it went an ideology that people upheld; if Christianity is presented as another ideology then people will reject it. They want to be free in their faith relations, they want to see sincere leaders who practice what they preach, not just nice talk, or clergy who do not believe what they are preaching,” explains Leonian.

“When people see your kind and sincere faith, they become more convinced of the values you preach than what the cults are offering,” he adds.

To teach about religion and faith, Bibles and devotional literature are offered to the public. More than 700,000 pieces of scripture publications alone have been distributed, and, every year,  66,000 children’s Bibles are passed out to all first graders in Armenia and Karabakh, upon the request of the Ministry of Education.

To demonstrate their commitment to improved quality of life, the AMAA operates medical and dental clinics in Yerevan, Vanadsor and soon in Stepanavan. Shipments of milk formula for infants with special nutritional needs continue to be made through the United Armenian Fund, and around 750 children benefit. Regular food stuff and fuel assistance goes to orphanages and schools. School buildings are renovated, various schools are sponsored, with every need from repairs to textbooks covered by the AMAA, 6,000 undernourished children and orphans from Armenia and Karabakh attend a weeklong summer camp program.

All aid is not in the humanitarian sphere. The Polytechnic Institute, now called the State Engineering University of Armenia also receives help from the AMAA.

In the past, they even invested in a renewable energy program. It has since been turned over to the Engineering University. The AMAA has also sponsored the establishment of a pig farm in Goris. The farm, which provides employment for six families, is now run by the local collective. In Vanadsor, it’s a chicken farm. In Gumri, it’s a carpet weaving operation. Everywhere, the focus is helping people and demonstrating the Evangelical community’s commitment.

It’s the same in Karabakh where the AMAA has a permanent office with a staff of two. There, they run a summer camp, a medical clinic, a milk program and orphan sponsorship just like in Armenia, assist schools in Shushi and other regions, sponsor the village of Gichan where the AMAA did everything from bringing water to the village to renovating the school.

And always, Bibles and religious texts are distributed to the public.

As part of its educational campaign, the Union has distributed not only material about its own faith, but also 10,000 brochures cautioning people about the “wrong” teachings of new religious movements or “cults” in Armenia, especially the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the fastest growing group in Armenia with an estimated membership of 16,000 “according to official sources,” says Leonian.

Leonian believes that the cult situation is cause for concern “but not dangerous.” He enumerates several possible responses toward their spread. One is “indifference on everyone’s part,” another is “fierce struggle against them,” or “active preaching by all churches, Apostolic, Catholic and Protestant.”

“Of course,” he adds, “I prefer the third option.”

Nevertheless, despite the Evangelical church’s strong and consistent presence in Armenia, “People and government officials are not familiar with us and do not know who we are and what we’re doing. There is still a learning process there. When they compare us with cults I smile, instead of explaining the whole thing. It hurts when people who are supposed to know, don’t know about us,” explains AMAA’s Janbazian.  

The general confusion both among the population and the established churches is due in part to the intolerance of the Armenian Apostolic Church on the one hand and the state’s imprecise (and at times contradictory) laws on religion, on the other.

In April 1995, an armed band attacked all non-Apostolic religious groups in Armenia, including the Armenian Evangelicals, and caused extensive damage to their properties. (The Catholics were spared the havoc, reportedly because of Armenia’s diplomatic relations with the Vatican).

AMAA’s Yerevan offices and the Evangelical Baptist Church were subjected to unlawful entry, search and seizure of property by Armenian government officials.

International human rights groups and the US government lodged an official protest with then President Levon Ter-Petrosian regarding violence against the Evangelicals and other religious groups such as the followers of the Hare Krishna (ISKCON). There are some 40 churches and “sects” officially registered by Armenia’s State Council for Religious Affairs. The Interior Ministry apologized for the “hooligan” actions against these groups and launched a criminal investigation. To date, no one has been punished for these illegal activities. 

The attack on the Evangelicals was a major embarrassment for the Armenian government, especially in view of the enormous assistance that the AMAA and its affiliate organizations provide to Armenia. Since then, however, relations between the government and the Evangelical community have improved.

“Many government people and clergy do not understand people’s spiritual needs,” says Leonian. “The state should come up with fair laws. Law on religion should be clear and just. Freedom of religion and conscience must be guaranteed by the state,” he says, adding that rules and regulations should be instituted through discussions with various groups who are affected by them and in consultation with all religious groups in Armenia.

For example, the law on humanitarian assistance by religious groups, and for that matter all charitable organizations, are unclear. Humanitarian assistance is taxed in Armenia. “Laws are vague; sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s very difficult to clear customs for humanitarian aid. We’ve discussed some of these problems with the authorities,” explains Leonian. “Generally, we do not have difficulties, because whenever we face a problem we deal with it through dialogue with the right channels.”

Despite perennial hurdles, Leonian is resolute. “We shall maintain our presence and witness everywhere in Armenia and no one can forbid us doing so.”

Indeed the current state-church relations in Armenia make the Evangelicals nervous. Unofficially, the state favors the Armenian Apostolic Church by granting certain legal privileges to the “Mother Church.”

The Evangelical Church in Armenia has relatively harmonious relations with the Holy See of Ejmiatsin and the Armenian Church in general. And despite “ill will” by certain clergy of the Apostolic Church, they cooperate in some projects.

The late Catholicos Karekin I “respected and honored the Armenian Evangelical Church,” affirms Leonian, “Perhaps because he was from the Diaspora, he had had close contacts with the Evangelicals and was very familiar with our work. He greatly appreciated the Evangelical contribution to the life of the nation.”

It remains to be seen how Apostolic-Evangelical relations will evolve during the tenure of Catholicos Garegin II. “We hope the new Catholicos will, in his own way, find the right path of cooperation in a constructive way, which would strengthen the Apostolic Church as well,” hopes Leonian.

Ultimately, “our intention is not to convert Armenia to Evangelicalism but to preach Christianity and the Gospel to Armenians,” says Leonian. “Indeed, the Apostolic Church could benefit from this mission as well. We would like to see the Apostolic Church – and all churches in Armenia – preaching and working together for the spiritual welfare of our people.”

Hratch Tchilingirian
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