Our crowded minibus hurtled towards the capital of Armenia when suddenly the snowy peaks of Mt Ararat loomed over the crest of the road. Excited chatter burst out among our fellow passengers returning home from Georgia. The clear weather made the mountain appear exceptionally close. Just 50 kilometres from the capital, the five kilometre high mountain formed an impressive backdrop to the city of Yerevan as we entered.
Although formerly in the centre of Greater Armenia, Ararat was now firmly in Turkish territory. Of course, the mountain had not moved – only the borders. And borders aplenty there were here at this ancient crossroads of the world, where Europe meets Asia and Christianity meets Islam. To the east was Azerbaijan; to the south-east, Iran. South and west was Turkey. And we had just left Georgia behind us to the north.
Gazing at Ararat, I too felt a strange sense of home-coming. This was where Noah began again after the flood. Elder son Japheth and offspring had headed north and west to populate Europe. My forefathers had eventually settled in Norway, moving across to the Orkneys as Vikings, then down to Normandy, and with the Norman invasion of 1066 to Norfolk, England. Over seven centuries later, my great-great-great grandfather sailed to India, and his grandson on to New Zealand. Three generations later, I left for Europe and settled in Holland. So here I was now, completing a great journey, returning home to Ararat.
Coming to Armenia felt like returning home in another sense too. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity. Last year, Armenians the world over celebrated 1700 years of the faith. Tradition holds that the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus brought the gospel to Armenia, and were martyred for their efforts. While some earlier churches were planted, the nation as a whole did not receive the gospel until 301, the great turning point in Armenian history.
Gregory, according to 5th century historians, was an assistant of king Tiridates. As a Christian, he refused to participate in the king’s sacrifice to a pagan goddess in 287, so was thrown into a dungeon at the foot of Mt Ararat. Thirteen years later, a group of Christian young women (tradition calls them ‘virgins’) sought refuge in Armenia from the Roman emperor’s persecutions. They settled close to where Noah was supposed to have erected an altar after the flood. Tiridates took a fancy to one of these women, Hripsime, who, faithful to her Christian convictions, refused his advances. The spurned monarch promptly had all 33 virgins martyred. He then was afflicted with a serious nervous illness, called ‘pig’s illness’. Tiridates’ sister had a persistent dream where she was told that the king could only be healed by Gregory, who was still languishing in the dungeon. She persuaded the king to release Gregory, who prayed for the king, resulting in his healing. Tiridates then proclaimed Christianity to be the state religion and ordered his whole court to be baptised. St Gregory the Illuminator, as he later became known, built a cathedral believed to be the first domed church in the world, which became a model for church architecture throughout Christendom.
The Armenian Apostolic Church thus predates the Roman Catholic Church. Although committed to the Nicene Creed, the Armenian Church has been autonomous from both Rome and Byzantine throughout the centuries. Somehow church history books tend to overlook this ancient stream of the Body of Christ. This despite the widespread diaspora of Armenians throughout the world, especially since the ethnic cleansing in what was Western Armenia (today’s Eastern Turkey) in the late 19th century and in 1915-16. The film ‘Ararat’, premiered at the recent Cannes Film Festival, features this genocide. Our own Joseph Avakian, designer of the current YWAM logo, is a Diaspora Armenian.
So meeting with believers from the Armenian Apostolic Church felt like discovering long lost family! We were a group of YWAMers who ourselves had never all met before – Ola from Norway, Niklaus from Sweden, Lena from Russia, Brenda from New Zealand, Al and Carolyn from the US, and myself from Holland. We had come to see what contribution YWAM could make to the body of Christ there. We were welcomed by the Brotherhood, a lay prayer movement within the Apostolic Church, dating back to the late 19th century, which mobilises thousands of the faithful in prayer groups throughout the country. We shared in a Perspectives course attended by students and young professionals, all keen members of the Apostolic church, taught by Petros Malakyan who had studied at Fuller alongside YWAMers like Gwen Fleming and Emma-Karin Emgard. These young Armenians were so hungry for more!
As we met leaders of organisations and denominations, we asked what contribution YWAM could best make. “Armenians need to be mobilised in missions,” said one. We learned of a bishop who had recently called for a recovery of mission vision for Armenians. The first nation to adopt Christianity should be setting an example in missions, he had written.
Lena and Brenda could hardly contain their excitement. As part of the 80-some nations project, targetting those remaining nations where there is no DTS, they will help lead a ‘Mega’ mobile DTS, starting in Armenia next year, and then splitting up into some six separate schools heading off in various directions. Their goal is to recruit young Armenians to go with them.
Imagine! Diasporan Armenians are spread all throughout the world, in places like Iran, Russia and Central Asia, as well as France, Holland, Australia and the US. They have open access to places closed to westerners. The Diaspora Congress being held this week in Yerevan reminded me that these global ethnic networks are like strings of firecrackers just waiting for the fuse to be lit.
I can hardly wait!
Till next week,
director, YWAM Europe