Last month, during a visit to Armenia, I had the opportunity to visit the historic church of Khor Virap (pictured), situated on the Turkish border immediately adjacent to Mount Ararat.
Khor Virap was the site where ‘Gregory the Illuminator’ had been placed in a pit in the ground for thirteen years in the late third century by the King of Armenia (T’rdat) because his father had assassinated the King’s father. Both had been in exile in different parts of the Roman Empire during which time Gregory, who was not actually Armenian, was converted to the Christian faith. He was kept alive by the King’s sister lowering food down to him and was eventually let out by the King after his sister had a dream indicating that there would be serious repercussions were he to be kept imprisoned. On being released he led the King to the Christian faith and apparently also healed him of a mental illness. As a result he was given the freedom of Armenia to preach the Gospel and establish churches. In this way Armenia was officially declared the first Christian country in the world in AD 301, twenty years before the conversion of Constantine.
Just over a century later in 405 AD the unique Armenian script (the language was previously written in Greek script) was revealed in a dream, written down and the language transcribed into it. This move effectively protected the Armenians from cultural assimilation over the following centuries and helped to ensure that Armenia remains 97% Christian today.
Although Christian faith for many Armenians is now simply nominal there is nonetheless a rich Christian cultural heritage which goes right back to the first century when two of Jesus’ twelve disciples, Bartholomew and Thaddeus, visited and established churches in 40 AD. Bartholomew was later martyred in the country.
Armenia currently has a population of three million but over ten million Armenians live in over one hundred countries worldwide in communities which preserve their language and culture. Almost all are at least bilingual and they therefore constitute a potentially strong missionary force. Armenia’s location within the 10:40 window, surrounded by Muslim nations is also clearly very strategic.
The borders to Turkey and Azerbaijan on the west and east respectively remain closed but those to Georgia in the north and Iran in the south are open. Armenians believe that both the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark were located in ‘Greater Armenia’. Mount Ararat, where the Ark settled, is now within Turkey and therefore much less accessible. The Garden of Eden, which is described in Genesis as being at the source of four rivers (Tigris, Euphrates, Gihon and Pishon) was, they believe, located in northern Iran just west of modern day Tabriz. The Gihon and the Pishon they recognise as two rivers which have been subsequently renamed and which drain into the west and south coasts of the Caspian Sea respectively.
Armenia has been through a lot of hardship throughout the centuries and especially in the last hundred years. A key defining event was the Armenian genocide of 1915 when allegedly over a million Armenians lost their lives at the hands of the Turks. The country was then for 70 years part of the former Soviet Union and a further 30 to 50 thousand died in Stalin’s purges. Just before independence the Spitak earthquake killed thirty thousand in 1988 and after independence in 1991 the war with Azerbaijan over the disputed Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh accounted for a further 30,000 lives. These events were in large part responsible for the mass emigration of Armenians at different points over the last century.
Whilst the Apostolic church is characterised by somewhat archaic ritual, ceremony and liturgy in ancient Armenian which few understand, there is vibrant new life in the evangelical churches and particularly in the Baptist and Pentecostal denominations.
The rich Christian history, strategic location, wide diaspora and biculturalism of Armenians make this country very important in world mission in the 21st century.