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After War, Can Armenia’s Evangelicals and Orthodox Save Their Nation Together?

Image: Maja Hitij / Getty

Craig Simonian had a vision. It landed him in a war zone.

Raised in an Armenian-American Orthodox family, he came to know Jesus personally at university. He served as a Vineyard church pastor in New Jersey for nearly two decades but continued to embrace his Apostolic church heritage.

It laid the foundation of his faith—but also of his nation of origin.

“The reason Armenia still exists is because of the church,” he said. “It kept our shattered people together, especially in the diaspora.”

As a child, Simonian’s grandmother witnessed her father and mother murdered in the Armenian Genocide, killed by Turks in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

When she eventually arrived in America, it was the Apostolic church that embraced their family. Simonian recalled kindly visits by priests of their Oriental Orthodox tradition who—in the face of tragedy and devastation—gave him a deep appreciation of the sovereignty of God.

It was his evangelical awakening, however, that drew him back to Armenia—and in particular to its church. He relocated in 2018 to a nation locked in a cold war with neighboring Azerbaijan. A self-professed “oddball,” he longed for the Apostolic church to embrace fully the gospel he had discovered.

“If we are going to reach this generation, we can’t do it without them,” Simonian said. “I will call people to Jesus but never to leave their church.”

But two years later, the war turned hot.

Azerbaijan invaded the Armenian-controlled enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in October 2020. The territory is recognized internationally as belonging to Azerbaijan, yet the residents of what Armenians call Artsakh voted for independence in 1991. For three decades Armenia held the upper hand but was routed in a 44-day war through superior drone technology that Turkey and Israel supplied to Azerbaijan.

Russian intervention enforced a ceasefire, with Nagorno-Karabakh demolished and Armenians holding a fraction of their previous territory. The nation felt numb after its defeat, and many found refuge in the Apostolic church.

Today, Simonian provides ad hoc spiritual care as he builds relationships with evangelicals and Orthodox alike.

His primary worship is through Yerevan International Church. But few in his personal circles have saluted his efforts to attend the Divine Liturgy and cultivate relationships with Orthodox clergy. Many evangelicals are soured by years of the older tradition labeling the newcomers a sect, or worse, a cult. But neither has Simonian yet found in the Apostolic church the fellowship that characterized his diaspora youth.

“The warm fuzzies I had growing up are completely void here,” he said. “The church is not so much a community.”

Simonian understands. Soviet communism purged the church, replacing clergy with compliant leadership. Following Armenia’s independence in 1991, this generation still exists but is giving way to a spiritual cadre that he says recognizes the church needs more than ancient traditions.

“We do not need to re-evangelize Armenia,” said Shahe Ananyan, dean of Gevorkian Theological Seminary in the Apostolic holy see of Etchmiadzin, 13 miles west of Yerevan. “Our main task is to wisely consider how to bring both Eastern and Western traditions together in synthesis.”

The church is still discussing application, he said. But he recognized that modern life for many has crowded out liturgical attendance and Bible reading. Forging forward anyway is…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on April 1, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Armenian Orthodox Leader: ‘We May Forgive One Day, But We Will Never Forget.’

Aram I Armenian Orthodox Church
(Image: Associated Press)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on November 1.

The Armenian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. According to tradition, Armenia was evangelized by Jesus’ disciples Bartholomew and Thaddeus. In 301 A.D., it became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion.

An Oriental Orthodox denomination, the Armenians are in communion with the Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian, and Malankara (India) churches. They differ with Catholics and Protestants over the 451 A.D. Council of Chalcedon decision to recognize Christ as one person with two natures: human and divine. Oriental Orthodox Christians declare Christ has one nature, both human and divine.

The Armenian Church is governed by two patriarchs, entitled Catholicos. One, Karekin II, is Supreme Patriarch for all Armenians and sits in Armenia.

CT interviewed Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, which was once located in modern-day Turkey but since the Armenian Genocide relocated to Antelias, Lebanon, five miles north of Beirut. His jurisdiction includes the Armenians of the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America.

Aram I discussed the genocide, the US House of Representatives resolution this week to finally recognize it, and Armenians’ desired response from Turkey.

How do you respond to the US resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide?

Yesterday I made a statement welcoming warmly this action taken. I believe it is very much in line with the firm commitment of the United States of America in respect to human rights. The rights of the Armenian people are being violated. After more than 100 years, we tried to bring the attention of the international community that the Armenian Genocide is a fact of history.

Whether we call it genocide or massacre or deportation, the intention is important. The intention of the Ottoman Turkish government at the time was to destroy [and] eliminate the Armenian people for political reasons. The presence of Armenian people in the western part of present-day Turkey and [historic] Cilicia was an obstacle to their project of pan-Turkism.

This is our legitimate claim: that the international community make a visible, tangible manifestation of their concern in respect to human rights, and recognize the Armenian Genocide. It was carefully planned and systematically executed by the government at the time.

Our people all around the world warmly greeted this action of the House of Representatives. It is our firm expectation that…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.