According to tradition, St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew evangelized the region of Armenia in the first century. In the year 301, it became the first nation to declare itself Christian. Through centuries of warfare and oppression, its Christian identity has endured as part of Armenian culture, despite repeated attempts by neighbors to stamp it out.
In 1915, the Turkish Ottoman Empire killed an estimated 1.2 million people during what has become known as the Armenian Genocide. Under the pretext that they were insufficiently loyal to the empire, Ottoman authorities shot entire villages, forcibly converted families to Islam, and marched hundreds of thousands of women and children into the Syrian desert to die. The brutal campaign of extermination led to a significant diaspora of Armenians to other countries.
Even after Armenia emerged from Soviet dominance and declared itself an independent republic at the end of the 20th century, peace has remained elusive. Armenia has faced decades of conflict over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, where some 100,000 Armenian Christians now live but which Muslim-majority Azerbaijan sees as its territory. In 2020, as the world was preoccupied with the global pandemic, Azerbaijan waged war against Armenia. Seven thousand lives were taken, and the region has remained in the shadow of a fragile ceasefire since.
Today, most Armenians exist in a state of uncertainty. Given their control over the region, it may be that Azerbaijan is poised to commit a second Armenian genocide. According to University Network for Human Rights researcher Thomas Becker,
Over the past decade, Azerbaijani officials have invoked language used in the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust, referring to Armenians as a “cancer tumor” and a “disease” to be “treated.” More recently, the country’s authoritarian leader Ilham Aliyev has threatened to “drive [Armenians] away like dogs.”
The situation seems dire with Russia, Armenia’s ostensible security guarantor, bogged down in its own war against Ukraine, and with Iran, Armenia’s southern neighbor eager to fill the security vacuum. However, an unexpected recent development is that a significant number of Armenia’s diaspora population has been returning to their homeland. After a hundred years of exile and living in places like Russia, France, and the United States, an estimated 50,000 Armenians repatriated prior to 2020, with thousands more joining them every year since.
For some, the motivation to return is economic. For others, it’s about standing with fellow Armenians in the face of war. However, for many, the calling is about their faith. As the dean of Armenian Apostolic seminary put it, “We as a nation are called to witness to Jesus Christ in a very difficult region. … Our very existence is a testimony of Christianity.”
Lara Setrakian, an Armenian-American journalist, moved back with her family at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. In a recent podcast, she put it this way,
I am doing what I’m called to do … and it is to be a helper like Mr. Rogers would say. It is a catastrophe. There are crises. But I want to be among the helpers. … We’re not interested in not being Christian … For Christians … this country is one big test of faith. And people I see are rising to the occasion. And they are finding strength, and they … have not ever given up. … They haven’t given up the cross; they haven’t given up their language, their love, their dance. They embody the resilience that we’re all looking for.
Another repatriated Armenian mused, “In America, I had a good life: a big house, a good car. But when I say, ‘good life,’ I mean something else.”
As so many in the West reel from a crisis of meaning, Armenian Christians have found joy in the face of severe hardship. In that way, we have much to learn from our Armenian brothers and sisters, even as we ask God to bless them, to strengthen their faith, and to bring peace to the nation they are rebuilding.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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