Armenian Evangelical Churches in Bulgaria
Header Photo: Armenian Refugees
By Rev. Bedros Altunian*
The story of Armenians in Bulgaria is similar to the stories of Armenian communities around the world. During the first Genocide in 1896, 25,000 refugees fled to Bulgaria. At that time, Bulgaria had just gained independence from 5 centuries of Ottoman rule. The refugees came to a poor country but were welcomed with great sympathy by the Bulgarian people. Very soon, Armenian Evangelical Pastors – Rev. Krikor Kevorkian, Rev. Hagop Shahveledian, and Rev. Haig Yardemian ̶ arrived from different countries to help the destitute refugees preserve their faith and their Christian identity, and to care for the children whose parents had died. Rev. Abraham Amirkhaniantz organized a soup kitchen for orphans in 1897 in the seaside city of Varna, and soon afterwards in other cities. That same year, Dr. Jochanes Lepsius, founder of the Berlin Armenian Massacre Relief Union, arrived in Bulgaria to assist Rev. Amirkhaniantz in caring for the orphans and refugees.
Along with their daily bread, evangelical pastors provided spiritual support to needy families. They laid the foundations of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in Bulgaria. During the next decades, churches were established in Varna, Shumen, Ruse, Plovdiv, and Sofia, in addition to the small communities in Haskovo and Burgas where Armenians found a new home.
The years of the communist regime from 1945 to 1990 were difficult. Our churches were closed, and our societies were dispersed. Several generations were kept away from the church and were brought up in a spirit of atheism. Only the church in Sofia remained open. After the changes in 1993, with support of the AMAA, through the visits and encouragement of Rev. Dr. Movses Janbazian and Armenian pastors from France, our churches were reestablished one by one. As it turned out, in some evangelical families the memory of the past was not completely erased, and these dear sisters and brothers became pillars of the restored churches. But in the nearly 30 years after the changes, that generation has largely passed away. Unfortunately, their children, with very few exceptions, stayed away from church which cut the roots of several generations and severed the link with the Armenian Evangelical Churches.
Currently Armenian evangelicals in Bulgaria congregate in four cities ̶ Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Ruse. They have historically developed for 120 years with some interruption, as independent churches in the buildings of the local Bulgarian unions ̶ those of the Congregational Union in Sofia and Plovdiv and of the Methodist churches in Varna and Ruse. Our churches do not have church buildings of their own. In part this is due to the warm welcome from local evangelical churches in the past and from 1990 until now.
At present, the churches are organized according to local laws in the “Association of Armenian Evangelical Churches in Bulgaria” and are part of the World Armenian Evangelical Community through the AMAA and the Armenian Evangelical Association in Europe. Today, due to restrictions in the laws on ethnic religious societies and organizations, our participation in well-respected evangelical alliances has proven to be very beneficial for us, allowing us to be part of the AMAA and the European Federation. In this respect, we acknowledge the support of AMAA Executive Director/CEO Zaven Khanjian and the initiative of Rev. Gilbert Léonian of France. The meeting three years ago with our pastors was very valuable and important decisions were made. Together we built a new vision for the future. We decided to make an effort to restore the children’s camps. It is unfortunate that COVID-19 hindered our development a lot. We had a responsibility to care for the health of our elderly members, and although our worship services were limited, we continued to care for those in need.
We also rejoice in the progress of our church in Sofia, which has overcome the obstacles that had distanced it from our community. We acknowledge the hard work of Rev. Harutyun Tateosian in this respect. We are also grateful for the great work of Brother Joseph Keshishian for preserving our church in Plovdiv. Pastors and church leadership are making efforts to meet the needs of our communities in the complex environment of COVID constraints.
The events in Ukraine caused many Armenian families to leave their homes and seek refuge in Bulgaria. Many stayed in Varna. Varna is a convenient place to return home after the hostilities, and for some families, to resettle in Armenia. Our Pastor Nerses Ketikian organized the placement of more than 200 refugees in recreation homes. With the support of the AMAA, we came to their assistance, fed them, helped them get temporary residence documents, and achieve social integration. We did our best to help them cope better with their difficult situation. Many of them keep in touch with our church. The active contacts of our pastor have helped the AMAA reach the needy in churches in Ukraine, solve urgent needs, and obtain medicines for the sick. Families were helped to reach relatives in Armenia. Our organizational efforts have made it possible for AMAA’s assistance to reach many of our countrymen in distress in a timely and effective manner.
We live in times that confront us with many new challenges. It is encouraging that our Armenian Evangelical Churches are ready to stand by people in need. God gives us new opportunities to share our faith and hope. We are convinced that we are sowers of good seed and believe that the seeds of our faith will bear fruit. Our most important goal remains the same ̶ that the Gospel may touch new hearts and enter new homes. We thank all who support and encourage us to come together in fulfilling the Great Commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:19-20. “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
*Rev. Bedros Altunian is the Chairman of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in Bulgaria