The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four – Jewish, Arab (Muslim), Christian and Armenian. So who are the Armenians? And why do they have a quarter in Jerusalem?
Armenia: The world’s first Christian nation
The Armenian nation is famous for being the first in the world to adopt Christianity way back in 301 AD. Other countries may have had communities or even entire cities of believers before that, but Armenia was the first to become an officially Christian country.
In a story that sounds not dissimilar to a biblical drama, the King of Armenia ended up leading his entire nation to Jesus thanks to an imprisoned believer who was called upon to save the day.
The king had been plagued with illness but his sister had a dream about a Christian man, imprisoned for his faith, who could do miracles and pray for healing. In 301, that prisoner, Grigor Lusavorich, was brought out of his 11 year incarceration to pray for the king whose health was supernaturally restored. The king turned his back on the sun worship of his ancestors, and declared Armenia a Christian nation from that moment on.
This is why, from the fourth century onwards, there has been an Armenian presence in Jerusalem, the city of our Great King. Several Armenian monks came to settle in the city, and eventually formed the oldest living Armenian community outside the country. Against the wishes of the Armenian community there, the Christian quarter (predominantly Latin and Greek Christian traditions) considers itself as separate. Most Christians living in the city speak Arabic and identify as Palestinian or Israeli Arab, but the Armenians have a different language and heritage.
Remarkable history and heritage
There are several remarkable features of the country of Armenia, such as the compulsory teaching of chess in school lessons, but perhaps it is the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Turks that sadly put Armenia on the map in global consciousness.
After other Muslim conquests had come and gone, the Turkish Ottomans conquered and ruled over a huge area of the Middle East including Armenia and what was then Palestine for 400 years. The building of churches and synagogues was outlawed, church bells were forbidden, non-Muslims (dhimmis) did not have equal rights for the vast majority of that time and had to pay the additional ‘jizya’ tax. But most catastrophically of all, in 1915 the call had gone out to get rid of every Christian in the Empire. The Armenian Genocide included not only Armenians but also Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians. Perhaps God had decided that enough was enough, because it was right after this atrocity that the Ottoman Empire fell.
When I asked an Armenian friend what she wanted the world to know about her people and her nation, she pointed to a book called The Happiest People on Earth. This, she informed me, was written by an Armenian man, about a movement started by Armenians!
The Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship was founded in 1951 by an Armenian man named Demos Shakarian, whose family had escaped the Armenian genocide just a few decades earlier, having received a message from God that they needed to flee.
Shakarian’s ancestors settled in California several years before unimaginable horrors hit their fellow countrymen. Many other Armenians fled as the danger became more evident, but some 1.5 million were murdered at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in a campaign that would pave the way for the Holocaust.
Over in the US, Shakarian’s Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship flourished and quickly became an international force to be reckoned with, bringing the Gospel to people all over the world. Many Christians will know of this movement, but not of its Armenian roots. Similarly, you will find several pastors and servants of the Gospel operating in Iran today are actually of Armenian origin. Many worship songs sung by believers in Iran – the fastest growing church in the world – originated with Armenians who love Jesus.
Satan may try to wipe out God’s people time and time again, but just as persecution only served to spread the fire of the Gospel in the first century, the fact is that this is a flame that cannot be extinguished. Armenian believers are still worshiping Jesus in Jerusalem.
Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash