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Armenia, Land of Discovery

  • Alix Kayayan,
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Rousas John Rushdoony was deeply interested in the Armenian people and the Armenian civilization. In a recent tribute to his father, Rev. Mark Rushdoony movingly highlights this interest and the long tradition of faith that for generations sustained his family, as it did mine.

My grandfather and Dr. Rushdoony’s father studied together in Turkey at an American seminary in the city of Merzifon, and it was with great emotion and joy that R.J. Rushdoony and my father discovered each other many years later by way of correspondence. I have often heard how Rushdoony’s writings inspired my father and how, without Rushdoony’s deep commitment and encouragement, my father’s ministry to Armenia, Reformed Faith and Life: Christians for Armenia, would not have been possible.

Armenia. Where is it? What is it? Does it matter? To understand Armenia is to understand its important geopolitical setting that contributed to the series of invasions and occupations Armenia endured almost continuously from antiquity to the 20 th century. An important route linking East and West made Armenia a desirable conquest, and it has seen the comings and goings of the Medes, Persians, Romans, Greeks, Mongols, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, and Russians. In addition, independent Armenian kingdoms existed not only in what is now Armenia, but also in Mediterranean Turkey, Central Turkey, and a large portion of Eastern Turkey. Armenia as we know it today is only one tenth of its former size, the rest of it having been taken by the Ottomans in the 15th century.

Some scintillating highlights in Armenia’s history also shed light on this now small but tenacious country: In 95 BC, its great empire encompassed all of Asia Minor under Tigran the Great. Its capital was the great and bejeweled Tigranakert, the site of which is located in Eastern Turkey near the Tigris River. Not surprisingly, given Armenia’s tumultuous history, Tigranakert was utterly destroyed by the Roman general Lucullus and his army a few decades later, and little besides historical accounts and some portions of walls now remain. The memory of Tigranakert, however, remains strong in the imagination of its people, even today.

Despite the little independence Armenians have enjoyed throughout the centuries and much hardship, they have retained a striking sense of identity. Only one explanation can account for this, a long Christian heritage in a world mostly hostile to its belief system. Armenia has lived in complete isolation as a Christian nation in that part of the world and has been forced to retreat within itself in the face of invaders.

The most significant event shaping Armenia’s course was the conversion of King Trdat III to Christianity in AD 301 through the guidance of Gregory the Illuminator, the first official Armenian bishop. Throughout its history, Armenia has looked to the West rather than to the East, several of its kings embracing Hellenistic culture. The acceptance of Christianity reinforced this connection to the West, so much so that during the Middle Ages the Armenian kingdoms of Cilicia (Mediterranean Turkey) were called upon by the European kingdoms to fight the crusades against the Muslims. At the same time, Armenia developed independently from the West, carving a distinct identity through the development of its own church and the creation of its own alphabet and written language in the 5th century.

It can be said that faith and language are at the core of Armenian consciousness. And the synthesis between faith and art, as it has existed in Armenia since the 4th century, is powerful. Churches not only disseminated Christianity, but were also at the heart of several cultural and historical golden ages. Monasteries were not merely churches attended by the faithful, but universities and cultural centers where Biblical and historical texts were transcribed and where literature flourished. For those who have traveled to Italy, such a relationship between faith and art will not be new. The remarkable difference in regard to Armenia, however, is that Armenia stood isolated, surrounded by vastly different cultures and religions, yet managed to develop itself in parallel to Europe. Also, as in Europe, faith and politics in Armenia were closely interrelated. Monasteries controlled numerous villages, serving both to organize and to protect Armenian society. Often built on capes formed by deep gorges, or elevated into the mountains, the location and ramparts around these religious centers made them formidable fortresses against which nomadic invaders had little chance of prevailing.

To speak of Armenia is also to speak of tragedy. No Armenian family has been left untouched by the genocide at the hands of the Turks in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1890 and 1915. My paternal great-grandfather and grandfather narrowly escaped the slaughter. The policy of the Turkish government or, as they called it, “The final solution,” was to eradicate all Armenians living in their country. This included not only mass killings and deportations of Armenians into the Syrian Desert, but the destruction of their villages, businesses, and sacred places. Those who escaped the genocide settled in France, Greece, and America, some also in Iran, where, even as Christians, they are treated better than they were as Turkish citizens in Turkey.

The massacres by the Turks were widely reported by the American press at the time, and the Americans were at the forefront of helping Armenian survivors. But in less than a generation, when political interests changed after the war and the Americans’ dependence on oil dictated their foreign policy as usual, a rapprochement with Turkey ensued, and the fate of the Armenians quickly became forgotten.

To this day, the Turkish government refuses to officially recognize the genocide. To this day, America has chosen to continue its alliance with Turkey, a country that holds a terrible human-rights record, until very recently at that. To this day, hypocrisy reigns, as embodied by a speech given by Bush in Istanbul this past June, praising Turkey for being a bastion of democracy and a secular country, advocating its entry into the European Union, for, after all, the EU should not be a “Christian club.” Mr. Bush’s “bastion of democracy,” by the way, carefully monitors what is said about it, denying entry into its gates to those who dare say too much.

What of modern-day Armenia? How all of the above manifests itself today is interesting, sad in many cases, but also very inspiring. A perfect example is an extraordinary school in the city of Gyumri, built after the devastating earthquake of 1988 for the orphans of this disaster (an estimated 50,000 people died). This school was built not by the state, not by a large corporation or even by a church, but by an Armenian couple who saw a terrible need and responded to it with whatever they had. Extraordinary talent and spirit emerge from the derelict building they were able to erect, and the students demonstrate the hope of something better and a love for life. That is in the heart and soul of the Armenians.

Spiritually, Armenia is fertile ground for missionary work. The oldest country to have adopted Christianity is sadly mired in a rigid, superstitious faith that has failed to grasp the living gospel. The Armenian church, which has been at the center of Armenian life and culture for centuries, has replaced God in many ways, as did the Catholic church in Europe before the Reformation. What a paradox that the one thing that has kept the Armenian people so unified and strong for centuries has also kept them from experiencing the true power of the gospel! But God’s grace still prevails, and the Armenians are open to the gospel when presented with its message of hope and salvation.

Armenia should be of interest to serious American Christians. The collapse of the Soviet system has meant more hardship for the average Armenian; and corruption — a malady shared by most other ex-Soviet states — exists abundantly. I believe that spiritual, intellectual, and financial investment can do much for this nation. R.J. Rushdoony understood this because he understood the rich heritage of this land and because he understood God’s miraculous intervention in the history of Armenia and in the lives of Armenians.