Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
In conversation with Talar Khatchoyan.
THE FORGOTTEN GENOCIDE
Tony Payne: Last week, Phillip talked about war and the horrors of war, and one of those wars is in Armenia or a part of Armenia, and Talar you’re Armenian.
Talar Khatchoyan: Yes, that’s right.
TP: So today we’re going to be talking a bit about Armenia, Armenians, the genocide that hardly anyone in Australia knows about, and how the gospel reaches all nations—but before we get into any of that, could you tell us a bit about yourself? Where do you work and how did you end up there?
TK: Yeah so I went to Moore College and graduated a few years ago, and I’m now working as an assistant minister at Naremburn Cammeray Anglican Church.
TP: Which is on the leafy middle class north shore of Sydney, right? Which is kind of a strange situation for an Armenian girl to find herself in.
TK: Mmm yes, it is.
TP: How did your family come to be in Australia?
TK: Well, my dad was born in Egypt. And he and his family came here in the 60s. And my mom was born in Lebanon, and her family came here in the 70s during the Lebanese civil war. And so that’s how they met. And then that’s how I’m here. So I was born in Australia, but they’re both ethnically Armenian.
Phillip Jensen: Why don’t you call yourself half Lebanese, half Egyptian?
TK: Oh, because my world was very Armenian growing up, and so was theirs. I grew up speaking the language. My parents taught it to us. We spoke it at home. Both their families had ended up in these countries because they had been fleeing. And so even my grandparents weren’t born in Armenia; they were born in Turkey and Syria, and you’d have to go back a few generations to find when my family were in Armenia. But they had to leave in terrible circumstances, and I think when that happens, people stick to their culture.
PJ: So the kind of war that Tony’s talking about, it’s not the first war for Armenia.
TK: No, definitely not. Armenia has had many, many wars. It’s been in a part of the world where over thousands of years, it has seen wars.
PJ: Tony wants to know where Armenia is. He’s not willing to admit that he doesn’t know where it is.
TP: Oh, it’s over there somewhere. It’s near Azerbaijan, which tells you exactly where it is.
TK: Around Turkey and Iran. It’s just sandwiched in between all these countries, and it’s landlocked.
PJ: So the English would call it Middle Eastern, but the geographers possibly would call it Southwest Asia which would be more accurate.
TP: See, if you’d asked me I would have said it was in Europe.
TK: Yeah, they’re in Eurovision as well. You’ll find us everywhere.
PJ: But it’s a Christian country, yes? In that part of Asia, which we don’t normally think of as Christian countries.
TK: No, not many Christian countries there.
TP: What other ones are there?
TK: Georgia would be the one that comes to mind, as they are close neighbours.
TP: How did Armenia originally become Christian?
TK: Christianity has been in Armenia for a long, long time. So the tradition goes that the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus went there, and they preached the gospel and there were converts. But the Christian who had a really big impact in Armenia was known as Gregory the Illuminator. He was evangelizing and was imprisoned for preaching the gospel. When he was released, he preached and the king of Armenia was converted. And in the process, the king decided that Armenia would become a Christian nation. And that was in 301 AD. So it has a very old Christian history and is the first Christian nation; so Arminians are very proud of that. I think any Armenian will remind you of that fact whenever they meet you if they hear you’re a Christian.
The Armenians worshipped a lot of other gods before then, and so when Armenia became a Christian nation, they destroyed all these other pagan structures, and in their place built lots of churches. So you go to Armenia, everywhere you look you’ll find churches—really old churches throughout the country.
PJ: So you don’t come from Armenia in the sense that you were born in Australia, but have you been to Armenia and seen all these churches?
TK: Yeah, I’ve visited Armenia three times.
PJ: So Armenia is full of churches. But how would we say the gospel came to it? Has it continued in faithfulness from 301 AD right through to today, or were there other significant periods? Did the Reformation reach Armenia?
TK: Yeah, full of churches, and very proud of their Christian history. But I think over time, their Christianity has become institutionalized and very much a part of Armenian culture. And so the other very significant time in Christian history in Armenia was actually in the 1830s, when some American missionaries were sent to the Ottoman Empire to evangelize Muslims. And as they arrived, they found this ancient Christian church, and they also found in this church that people didn’t really know the Bible. And so they started reading the Bible. And over time, as people kept hearing the Bible, a small group started questioning the practices of the Armenian Orthodox Church. And so eventually, in 1946, they established an evangelical church; so it kind of came out of American evangelicalism. And that evangelical church had a lot of persecution; they were obviously very different to the rest of the Armenian population, who were largely orthodox. Yet they grew and grew. And so that is the other significant date for Armenian Christianity.
PJ: And your parents came out of that church?
TK: So from my mum’s side, it was my grandfather who converted while he was in Lebanon. He was evangelized by an evangelical Christian and heard the gospel, and he then became a minister. My dad heard the gospel when he came to Australia, actually. So I grew up with two gospel-believing, Bible-believing Christian parents. I’m so so grateful for that.
TP: And so what’s your story of gospel conviction and of coming into ministry?
TK: Yeah, my parents always taught me the gospel, they always taught me about God’s love in Christ. And so it was all I’ve ever known growing up, and I’m really grateful for their ministry. Life has been growing in the conviction of the gospel, and very much helped by the ministry not just of my parents, but also the AFES group at university. That was very important for me. I got to meet other Christians who weren’t Armenian, but who loved the Bible. And I really learned how to read the Bible. I was extremely grateful for that time and so many others who invested in me. And I’m very convicted that it’s a gospel for all nations. I was taught so well by people who had studied at Moore College and who were in ministry, and as I kept hearing about how important this message is, I really just wanted to be trained up in that way and to give my life over to full-time ministry.
PJ: At your university, there was some good Bible teaching from Moore College graduates. But where did you really get challenged, so to speak, with the idea that Moore College is a place where an Armenian would be welcome as well?
TK: Well, it was at an MYC—a Mid Year Conference—I went to after I’d finished uni. I was teaching at the time. I went along, and I heard you, Phillip, preaching. And that was wonderful. And then we met, I think on the first or second day of the conference. You had bumped into my sister in the lunch line, and you picked up that she was Armenian by her name. You mentioned that and then she said, “My sister’s here, too. You should meet.” And so we did. I think we had about a few hours talking, and by the end of that conference, I had decided I was going to do a ministry apprenticeship with you.
PJ: You’ve been out of college a few years? Have you really enjoyed the privileges and opportunities available?
TK: Absolutely. I love teaching the Bible. I think it’s a great joy to now open up these treasures that we have, with people and read it and see the true words of eternal life.
TP: That’s wonderful to hear and Talar, we’ll talk more about the gospel and especially multicultural evangelism—evangelizing people from different ethnic backgrounds—before we finish. But I do want to come just briefly to where we started with wars and rumours of wars and the horror of wars, because the one that’s been in and out of our news feeds has been the current conflict between the Armenians and Azerbaijan. Can you just tell us what’s actually happening? Because I hear bits and pieces but I’m not entirely sure. I know there’s this place called Nagorno Karabakh?
TK: Yes, so it’s a parcel of land that has been disputed over for a while. It is a part of the world where Armenians have lived for many, many, many years. Even in 2020, the New South Wales legislative assembly overwhelmingly recognized that Armenians were indigenous to this part of the world. But in the 1920s, Stalin gifted this parcel of land to Azerbaijan. And so when the Soviet Union collapsed and all these states were trying to establish their independence, Armenians wanted to claim that as their own. They’ve been living there, they’ve got churches there that are very old, and so that resulted in a war over 30 years ago, and it was a terrible war. Terrible things happened on both sides. And out of that war, an Armenian government formed—a democratic government in that region, but it wasn’t recognized by the world because that land is in Azerbaijan.
And so in 2020, war broke out again. It seemed like Azerbaijan attacked and wanted to reclaim that land. There were multiple ceasefires, and then eventually, the land was divided up, so a lot of Armenians fled half of Nagorno Karabakh. And then this year, just last month, we’ve had more conflict, and now Armenians are fleeing because it’s been completely taken over. And so they’re all going to Armenia as refugees. So it’s been a terrible month, been terrible years of war in that part of the world.
PJ: As with all wars, there are the refugees, the poverty, the dislocation, the horror of it… But that’s nothing new for Armenians, is it? And the terrible thing that we know of the Armenians was the Turkish genocide back in the First World War. Why were Armenians in Turkey?
TK: Well, Armenians have been in the midst of big empires for many, many years, and lost land to them. And so a lot of Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire at the start of the First World War. So while the world was preoccupied with war, the Ottoman Empire led by the Young Turks targeted Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. They rounded up the cultural elite of the Armenians and killed them. And then it resulted in 1.5 million Armenians being killed in a genocide, and many Armenians fled. They fled on death marches through the desert and those that survived ended up in Syria. And that’s my own family’s history. I’ve had great-great-grandparents who were killed, or we think were killed, and their family having to flee as a result.
PJ: Is that why your father’s family was in Egypt?
TK: Yeah, I’m not sure when they ended up in Egypt and how, but his parents were in Syria and Turkey, and I guess they left after that.
PJ: But it has meant that Armenians are scattered across the world. I found when I was in Singapore that some of the oldest Christian groupings in Singapore were Armenian.
TK: Yeah. That would have predated the genocide.
PJ: I found that the woman who created the national symbol of Singapore was Armenian, and the great Raffles Hotel was owned by Armenians, and the Straits Times was made by Armenians. There’s been famous Armenians here in Sydney too, haven’t there? Tony, who are the famous Armenians in Sydney?
TP: Gladys Berejiklian. But apart from her, I don’t know any.
PJ: For those of our overseas guests listening in, she was the Premier of New South Wales from 2017 to 2021.
TP: So it sounds like the history of Armenia and Armenians has been a terribly war-torn and persecution-racked history, especially in the last 130 years. And they’ve experienced that, in a sense, as a Christian nation, and often as the result of explicitly anti-Christian persecution. Is that part of what’s happening in Azerbaijan even now?
TK: Yeah, I think so. As Azerbaijan has taken over that area, they’ve been very intentional in removing crosses off churches and reclaiming them as different kinds of buildings. So I think there’s an anti-Christian element to what has happened.
TP: So coming back to your gospel convictions and the ministry here in Sydney—or in other places where you’re listening, dear listener. For Armenians and many others coming from Western cultures, they can be deeply Christian in their heritage, but nevertheless it can be just a name or just a heritage and just a culture. They haven’t always grasped the gospel themselves. And so if we meet people from an Armenian heritage, what sort of thing should we be sensitive to as we seek to share the gospel with them?
TK: Yeah, I think it’s very hard to talk to someone about them needing to be a Christian when they know their history: that their people have been killed as Christians for so long. And so I’ve heard some of my friends who have ended up meeting Armenians and have wanted to share the gospel with them, and the feedback they’ve gotten straight away is: “We’re the oldest Christian nation. Our church is older than yours.”
TP: “Our people died for Christ. Did yours?”
TK: Yeah. Absolutely. And so that could be a difficult thing to get through. But I would love Armenians to call themselves Christian because they know the Christ of the gospel and not just Christian because it’s their history. It’s important to them because of the wars that they’ve had and the church that they have, but I would love them to actually come to Jesus on his own terms. And so I think what I always want to do with Armenians is, if I can, read the Bible with them, to open up God’s word. “You call yourself a Christian, let’s have a look at what God has said.” And that is going to be, I pray, fruitful for the salvation of Armenians.
PJ: Yes, we used to have the same kind of problem here in Sydney with Anglicans. We’ve found with people born more recently, you persuaded them they weren’t Christians in order to explain to them what it was to be a Christian, how to become one. But people older than that, who were born into a more Christian culture, it was best to say, “Well, you claim to be Christian, and that’s great news. We’re really pleased you believe Jesus died and rose from the dead. Let’s read the Bible together.” And so instead of trying to persuade people that they weren’t Christians in order to become Christians, you accepted that people claim to be Christian, but then you filled in what that meant reading the Bible with them. So it’s that kind of form of evangelism, isn’t it?
TK: Yeah. That’s right.
TP: It’s very similar to what Mark Gilbert and others put forward as a way to evangelize people from a Roman Catholic background as well. Rather than attacking Roman Catholicism or trying to persuade them of the doctrinal errors of the Pope or trying to somehow critique them out of Roman Catholicism, why don’t we meet and read the Bible together? And over time, as you meet Jesus in the Bible, you start to see that there’s a disconnect between the Jesus I read there, the gospel I see there, and my life and my beliefs.
TK: Yeah, I think for most Armenians, they don’t really know much about Jesus. They think he was good man, he had good things to say. But they probably don’t know much of what he did say. And they have a loyalty to their culture over Christ. That’s a great tragedy for such an old nation with such an old Christian history. And I think for Armenians, it’s very hard for them to walk into an Anglican church or any church that’s not an Armenian church; it can seem like a betrayal of their people and their culture. And so I think you want to meet Armenians where they’re at, as we want to meet all people where they’re at, and we want to meet them in groups. Sometimes that’s more helpful than one-to-one as you want them to be in your life. And Christian hospitality is something that we should be practising toward people; bring them in with the word open, showing them how wonderful Jesus is. Even better than being an Armenian is to be a Christian.
PJ: It is. Many of our migrant groups, and I think Armenians too, are really family people, aren’t they? So meeting them in a family context, if you can do that…
TK: Yes, meeting their parents… And I think that was something that you did with my own family, Phillip, as you spent time with my parents, and you spoke to them. And that goes a long way, I think, to recognize and respect the way that these families have had to stick together through a lot of history. I think we’ve only now hit the second generation in our family where we’ve had two generations born in the same country, rather than having to move around. So that makes family solidarity very, very important, and that’s why it is hard to hold to beliefs that are different to your family. And so meeting family and sharing that with them, too, is really important.
TP: That’s encouraging, Talar. When we meet someone and we’re wanting to bring the gospel to them, we want to find out who they are. And we mustn’t assume. I sometimes assume that because Australia is a pretty pagan country, therefore everyone I meet is an atheist, or that everyone I meet is anti-Christian or has zero background or connection with the Christian gospel. Whereas there are all kinds of people that we will meet—such as by the sound of it, most Armenians!—who are not atheists, and who are actually quite happy to identify themselves with Christianity. And so the kind of conversation I’m going to have with that person and the kind of invitation I might extend to that person will be quite different. And that’s really important to know.
TK: Yeah, exactly.
PJ: That’s a terrific thing, and we’ve got such a wonderful opportunity here in Australia to reach the nations of the world.