The introduction of Christianity in Armenian is accredited to the disciples of Jesus. Until the early fourth century Christians were persecuted. In early forth century, Armenia became the first nation to accept Christianity as its national religion when its king became Christian. The Armenian Church grew and developed in its unique culture of social and economic interaction with the surrounding diversity of religions. The clergy were the most educated people in the land and were advisors to the king. Kings used to consult the church in all political matters. The church improved the social life of the people. The church, through one if its monks and his students, developed a language that was Christian in essence, promoting equality, justice and inclusivity. The first work that was translated into this new language was the Bible. Amazingly, it is still considered one of the best and faithful translations of the original texts. Armenians were passionate about Christianity. They fought and died to keep their faith. They were killed persecuted and massacred because they would not give up their faith in Christ. Armenia, both Eastern and Western, is filled with churches. One if its cities, on the border of Turkey called Ani, is known as the City of 1001 Churches.
Christianity is an integral part of Armenia and Armenians. It is explicitly demonstrated in their culture, dance, song, music, art, and in all areas of life. Tragically, after 70 years of Communist rule in Eastern Armenia, where religion and church were not allowed, the new generation today struggles to make that connection with their ancestors’ faith and passion. However, the church has survived and Christianity expressed in the arts, music, sculpture, paintings, etc. Western Armenians have been displaced and have lost their land, and the church has remained the only institution that has kept and taught the language and culture to the people. For Armenians, the church today is not only a religious institution but a social and cultural one as well. The lives of the people revolve around the church.
Finally, it is not possible to speak of Armenians without mentioning Mount Ararat. The symbol of the unity and hope of the people. Armenians consider the Old Testament as pat of their own heritage where they trace their ancestry back to Japheth son of Noah.
In April, these are the people we pray for.
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God of Noah,
Who was pleased by the smell of offering on Mount Ararat, where you set your bow as a sign of your covenant with all life on earth, we praise you for your everlasting love and care even when we turn away from you. Touch our hearts and rekindle our passion to live our lives faithfully and reach out to others who thirst for your presence in their lives.
God of resurrection,
In the image of the Ark resting on Mount Ararat we see a renewed hope of life, a life of resurrection, a life of restoration and a life of reconciliation. We pray for our sisters and brothers, in whom Mount Ararat has a special place; a place where identity is forged, a place where community is built and a place where faith is nurtured. We pray for Armenians who have been scattered all over the earth, that wherever they are, they may keep the faith passed down to them from their parents and faithfully pass the same teachings to their children.
The Legend of the origins of Armenians goes back to Noah. The Legend has it that Hayk, the ancestor of the Armenians is the son of Torgom son of Tiras son of Gomer son of Japheth son of Noah. Hayk had an argument with Belus (Bel) and migrated with his group from Babylon to the North and settled in what became Armenia. The Land they settled in included current day Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh, Nakhichevan, parts of north-western Syria, part of south-western Georgia and the eastern half of Turkey.
In 301 C.E., Armenia became the first Christian nation. In 405 C.E., Mesrop Mashdots, a monk, created the Armenian alphabet and consequently the Armenian language that the church used for centuries, and still uses. The Bible was translated into this new language. The Language itself was a Christian creation stressing equality and inclusiveness. In 451, while the rest of the Christian world was at the Council of Chalcedon, the Persians demanded that Armenia become Zoroastrian, but the king refused and sent his generals to fight the invading Persians. All the soldiers were killed and the king captured, but within a few years the different freedom fighters were able to drive the Persians out and the Armenian Church was able to continue.
Between the 8th and 11th centuries the Seljuk Turks invaded the region, and in the late 13th and early 14th century they created the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia, which was an Armenian region, but because of the Roman, Persian and Arab conquests, had been under the rule of different empires. It had a diversity of cultures with a majority of Armenians. The Ottoman Empire grew and invaded Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Between 1894 and 1896, the Sultan ordered the killing of 200,000-300,000 Armenians, which was known as the Hamidian massacres.
Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, similar to other ethnicities, were considered second grade citizens. They were forced to wear different colours identifying their ethnicity. They were persecuted and marginalised. They were not allowed to occupy certain positions, and were not allowed certain jobs. They were not allowed education and many had gone to Russia or Georgia for their education. In 1908 the Young Turks took over the government, and introduced reforms. These reforms gave Armenians the opportunity for education and some of the positions they were denied in the past. Those educated abroad returned and the Armenian community prospered.
The Young Turks government considered this development a threat to the Empire’s existence and on April 24, 1915, the day before the ANZACs attempted their invasion in Gallipoli, the Turkish government rounded up and arrested some 250 intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople. The genocide was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labour, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre. The total number of people killed as a result has been estimated at 1.5 million. A further 1 million were displaced. The deserts of Syria are filled with the bones of dead women and children. The Syrian government has given the Armenian community a piece of land in the city of Deir Ezzor, which was the final concentration place for annihilating the Armenian deportation caravans, where a memorial to the victims of the genocide is built.
Although religion was used in many instances and the phrase “Allah u Akbar” was heard when killing Armenians, this was a purely political decision. The government abused the religious difference to entice Turks to kill their Armenian neighbours. Many of the Muslim Turks, however, decided to protect and help their Christian neighbours from the government troops who came to kill them.
The governments of Great Britain, France and Russia at the time condemned the acts and considered them as crimes against humanity and civilisation. Churchill called it an unnamed crime, because the term genocide did not yet exist. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish jurist, coined the term genocide in 1943, and mentions in many of his writings that he was troubled by the Armenian mass murders as a young boy which made him work tirelessly to coin the term genocide and make sure the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on December 9, 1948.
Since then, Armenians have been working to encourage organisations and governments to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. The Armenian Genocide was acknowledged by the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly in 2015. Other organisations and countries who have also acknowledged the genocide include the World Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), Union for Reform Judaism, Human Rights Association (Turkey), International Association of Genocide Scholars, over 22 countries, the Australian State governments of New South Wales and South Australia).
Geoffrey Robertson, in his book An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians? mentions that today countries like Australia recognise the atrocities of what they have done to the indigenous people, because in 1915 the government of Great Britain was appalled and condemned the massacres of the Armenians. The events of 1915 became a moral wakeup call to the great nations. It was the first genocide of the 20th century.
Armenians today are dispersed all over the world. The major diaspora centre was in the Middle East (Lebanon and Syria) where they face yet another persecution and have become refugees again. The Bishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Australia and New Zealand in a conversation said “My people became refugees in 1915. 100 years later we have again become refugees.” Although Armenia today is an independent country and many Armenians in the diaspora look to it as their country, a major part of the land has become part of Turkey, and the homeland of many diaspora Armenians is today part of Turkey.
The Author William Saroyan said “I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” And the first thing they build in this New Armenian is a Church and a School.