The Armenian Evangelical Union of the Near East

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

The Armenian Evangelical Union of the Near East

Coping with the effects of the war

Hratch Tchilingirian

Established in 1924, the Lebanon-based Armenian Evangelical Union of the Near East is one of the oldest among the five Unions that comprise the Armenian Evangelical Church. It is a union of over two dozen churches and congregations in seven countries in the Middle East and one church in Australia, as the origin of the Sydney church is traced back to Lebanon and Syria. 

Each member church in the Union is autonomous in its internal affairs; however, certain Union-wide functions are centralized, such as the screening of candidates for the ministry. New recruits study at the Near East School of Theology, and at Haigazian University.

Unlike those in other parts of the world, the Armenian Evangelicals in Lebanon, as part of the Evangelical Denomination of Lebanon [Taefa Protestant], are one of the officially recognized communities in the country’s sectarian political system.

“The Denomination has wide cooperation with the Armenian Evangelical community and is much closer to the Armenian milieu,” says Rev. Megerdich Karageozian, President of the Near East Union, “but legally and formally we are part of the Evangelical Denomination of Lebanon.”

The Denomination is guaranteed one seat in the Lebanese Parliament. And since 1972 the “Protestant MP” has been an Armenian as well. In the past Antranik Manoogian and Nourjan Demirjian have served as MPs; currently Abraham Dedeyan represents the interests of all the Evangelicals in Lebanon.

“An estimated five percent of Armenians in Lebanon are Evangelicals,” says Rev. Karageozian. “Currently that is probably around 5-6,000 members.”

Over the last two decades, thousands have left Lebanon depleting the human and financial resources of the church. Especially during the Lebanese Civil War, “50 percent of our congregation emigrated,” says Rev. Karageozian.

The Union closed two schools in Zahleh and Tripoli due to lack of students and one school in Beirut was closed due to difficult financial conditions. But the community continues to educate some 1,600 students in three secondary, two middle and two elementary schools in Lebanon, with help from endowment funds. Before the beginning of the war, the Evangelical schools had more than 5,000 students in their schools. “The economic well-being of the population has been disrupted because of the war and emigration.” He explains that the community expects the Union to provide scholarships and cover the cost of every student who attends their schools. “In the past, a $100 scholarship meant a lot, but today an upper class student costs about $2000,” he explains.

But the pride of the Armenian Evangelical Church is the Haigazian University, the only higher education institution in the Diaspora (see story below).

In addition to education, the Union has a social service office and several joint projects with other Armenian charitable organizations. In cooperation with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Evangelical Union is involved with the operation of the Armenian infirmary in Azunieh, the home for the elderly and a center for the blind in Bourj Hammoud.  The Union also cooperates with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem.

The fortysomething Karageozian is part of a new generation of Evangelical leaders who have brought a new “thinking process” in the community.  “We are 20-25 years late in instituting administrative reforms,” he says, “probably because of the war in Lebanon. He mentions a case of embezzlement in the church, for example, and adds, “we should have had a system to prevent that.” In general, “People recognize the need for reforms,” he adds, “but we have a conceptual problem in reconciling professionalism with pastoral concerns.”

In addition to organizational issues, there are many pastoral challenges. “There are new problems to deal with,” says Rev. Karageozian and notes an “increase of divorce cases related to financial problems.” And as a side effect of financial problems there is “increasing cases of drug use and gambling,” he says with alarm.

The Union, under its new, younger leadership has started a process of reassessment and reorganization to better conduct its mission under changing times and circumstances.

Hratch Tchilingirian
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