Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East: History at a Glance
By Rosette Alemian*
The Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East (UAECNE) is an autonomous body of Armenian Evangelical churches comprising 25 congregations throughout Australia, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. The UAECNE, previously known as the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in Syria and Lebanon, is the continuance of the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in Cilicia. Those who survived the Armenian Genocide formed the timber around which the Armenian Evangelical Community was founded in the Near East. The Union’s first General Assembly was held in Aleppo April 30-May 3, 1924. In 1937, the Armenian Evangelical community in Syria was recognized by the government. The previous Presidents of UAECNE include Rev. Dr. Hovhannes Aharonian and Rev. Dr. Hovhannes Karjian. Currently the President is Rev. Megrditch Karagoezian and the Chair of the Central Committee is Rev. Paul Haidostian, Ph.D.
In the early years of the 1900s Armenian refugees gathered in different camps and built churches and schools. Later, they left them and established communities in larger cities in the Near East. Some of the churches and schools do not exist anymore, while new ones were founded over the years.
In this brief history, we will present the churches and institutions that are under the auspices of the UAECNE.
Australia – Sydney
On May 12, 1966, the Armenian Evangelical Church of Sydney was founded in Naremburn, a suburb on the lower North Shore of Sydney, under the leadership of Brother Khachig Khachigian. In 1985, the Church moved to Willoughby. In 1996, the inauguration of a new church building was held under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Krikor Youmshajekian, Pastor of the Church at the time. Since October 2010, the Pastor of the Church has been Rev. Hagop Sarkissian.
In course of the British entering Cyprus many Armenian Evangelicals settled on the island and joined the Armenian Apostolic church. Later in 1887 most of them joined the Reformed Presbyterian Church. On July 28, 1946, Rev. Yohanna Der Mgerditchian inaugurated the Armenian Evangelical Church in ancient Nicosia. During the Turkish invasion of the island (1973-74) Armenians left the ancient city. However, the Armenian Evangelicals continued to hold worship services in the American Academy. (Read the story of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Cyprus on pages 12-13 of this issue.)
The Armenian Evangelical Community in Egypt was formed as early as the 19th century. In 1936, the Church membership was about 800. The first Pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Cairo was Megrditch Knajian (1899-1911) and the last Pastor who served the Church until it closed its doors due to emigration of the community members was Brother Vahram Khounganian.
The Armenian Evangelical Church of Alexandria was established by Rev. Mihran Knajian. The church building was constructed in 1949. Currently a small number of people gather under the leadership of lay preacher Dr. Samuel Khounganian.
In 1921, 3,000 Armenian Evangelicals were members of churches in four districts in Athens (Derguty, Singroui, Kokkinia, Lipamagi) and in Selanig. Due to political ups and downs, Armenians immigrated to the Motherland during 1947-48, diminishing the number of community members. In 1948, Armenian Evangelicals counted 120 families in Greece.
Currently only the Kokkinia church operates. The first official preacher was Rev. Roupen Kayayan (1923-27). In 1928 the church building, a school and hall were constructed. The kindergarten operated until 2017. Rev. Krikor Demirjian served the church for the longest period. Since 2004 Rev. Vicken Cholakian has served as the Pastor of the Church in Kokkinia.
Iran – Tehran
The Armenian Evangelical Church of Iran was founded in Tabriz through American missionaries working in the Bible Society. In 1876 Sourp Hovhannes Church was founded in Mirza Shirazi, Tehran. Currently there are two other acting churches in Tehran – The Hokeshounch Church in Majidieh, Tehran and the Shnorhali Church in Zakesh, Tehran. The first ordained Minister was Rev. Mihran Dambourjian. Currently the Pastors of the churches in Tehran are Rev. Sergey Shahverdian, Rev. Dr. Michel Aghamalian and Rev. Vazrik Safarian.
Iraq – Baghdad
Due to political instabilities in Iraq, the Armenian community eventually diminished, and so did the Armenian Evangelicals. The Armenian Evangelical Church in Baghdad was reestablished in 2004 during the war to inspire hope and inner peace in the hearts of believers. Currently about 110 people gather every Sunday under the leadership of Brother Norek Hovsepian. The Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA) and the UAECNE together contribute to help people survive in these dark days. In 2008 during a street fight, a section of the Church was burnt. Thanks to the AMAA, the building was renovated, and worship services continued.
The presence of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Jordan is connected with the Church of the Nazarene, which, as a continuation of the Armenian Evangelical Churches of Cilicia, greatly contributed to the spread of spiritual and educational life. The Armenian Evangelical Church of Amman operated under the auspices of the Nazarene Church. The Armenian Evangelical Church life has stopped due to the emigration of many community members.
Between the years 1922 and 1926, many Armenian refugees who had survived the Armenian Genocide settled in Beirut and lived in the outskirts of the city under extremely poor conditions. For some time, two churches were operating under the name of Armenian Evangelical First Church. In 1926, these two churches started to function independently of each other. The Church, which was in the outskirts of Beirut, later moved to Ashrafieh. In 1949, the First Church bought a property on Mexique Street and the building of a sanctuary took about 10 years. The Church was officially named The First Armenian Evangelical Church of Beirut.
In 1931, Rev. Henry Riggs, in memory of his late wife and daughter, donated land in the Ashrafieh quarter. In 1932, the building of the church and school commenced, and later new sections were added. The church was called The Armenian Evangelical Church of Ashrafieh.
After the Armenian Genocide, in the years 1930-32, some 2,200 families settled in the Bourj Hammoud area. In 1934, The Armenian Evangelical Church of Nor Marash was founded by Rev. Garabed Hassessian who served until 1942. Since 2015 Rev. Raffi Messerlian is the Pastor of the Church.
The Armenian Evangelical Church of Anjar was founded in 1941. The first Pastor was Rev. Aram Hadidian who came with his congregation from Musa Dagh to Anjar and continued serving in the village. The current Pastor of the Church is Hagop Akbasharian.
In 1970, The Armenian Evangelical Church of Nor Amanos was inaugurated. The founding Pastor was Rev. Vahram Salibian. After the untimely death of Pastor Sevag Trashian in 2020 the pulpit is still vacant.
The Syriac Evangelical Church of Beirut was founded in 1965. Currently the Pastor is Rev. Selim Sabounji.
The Armenian Evangelical Bethel Church was officially founded in 1923. Its early membership was mainly deportees from the Marash Armenian Evangelical community in Cilicia. The current Pastor is Rev. Dr. Haroutune Selimian, who is also the head of the Armenian Evangelical Community in Syria.
The Armenian Evangelical Emmanuel Church in Aleppo is one of the oldest Armenian Evangelical Churches, established in 1852 (in the old city). The current Church building in Azizieh was erected in 1923. The Emmanuel Church was damaged after being shelled by rebels on January 17, 2016 and renovated in 2018. Currently the pulpit of the Church is vacant.
In 1931, seventeen members of the former Hayik Church came together and founded the Armenian Evangelical Nahadagatz (Martyrs’) Church in Aleppo. The church is in the Suleymanie quarter, Aleppo. The current Pastor is Simon Der Sahagian.
Christ Church in Aleppo was founded in 1922. Rev. Barkev Apartian served there for many years. Currently Rev. Bshara Mousa Oghly serves the Church.
The Armenian Evangelical community existed in Homs since 1949. Until 2011, Sunday services were held with visiting pastors, which was closed due to the Syrian civil war.
In 1922, Armenian Evangelicals settled in Damascus and counted 450 people. Due to political and Church disturbances the Damascus church community diminished. The last Pastor was Datev Basmajian (2005-2010).
The Armenian Evangelical Church in Kessab goes back to 1853. In 1970, the Inauguration of Saint Trinity Church in Kessab took place (originally built early in the 20th century but not completed). The Ekiz Olouk, Keorkuneh, and Kaladouran villages have churches as well. The current Pastor is Shant Agishian.
Syriac Evangelical Church in Aleppo was founded in 1925. The first Pastor was Rev. Dikran Kherlopian (1927-31). The last full-time Pastor was Rev. Yousef Ousda Jabbour. Currently the pulpit is vacant.
Turkey – Istanbul
On July 1, 1846 the first Armenian Evangelical Church was founded in Pera (Istanbul) with 40 members. The first Pastor was Apisoghom Khachadourian (Utujian). In 1848, the number of Church members was 99. The Pera Church building was constructed in 1904. Currently, Ms. Sona Özpenbe leads the Sunday worship services.
The Armenian Evangelical Church of Gedik Paşa was established in 1850. On January 16, 1921, the ground floor of Gedik Pasa Church was constructed. Since 1990 Rev. Krikor Ağabaloğlu has been the Pastor of the Church. In 2003, the Hrant Dink School was established on the premises of the Church for Armenian children coming from the Motherland.
For many years worship services were also conducted in the Bible House which was registered as the third Church of UAECNE in Istanbul.
Hrant Guzelian was the founder of Camp Armen, which was used as a shelter and education center for children who were brought from inner cities of Turkey. Hrant Dink and his wife Rakel were raised and educated there.
The first Armenian Evangelical School in Lebanon was founded in Beirut (1922). Until 1960, there were more than 15 Armenian Evangelical schools operating in Lebanon. Currently there are only four active Armenian Evangelical schools.
Armenian Evangelical College of Beirut was founded in 1923 with grades KG to High School. The current Principal is Dr. Armen Urneshlian.
Armenian Evangelical Central High School of Ashrafieh was founded in 1922, with grades KG to High School. The current Principal is Maral Deyirmenjian.
Armenian Evangelical Shamlian Tatigian Secondary School-Bourj Hammoud (Nor Marash) was founded in 1934, with grades KG to 10th (High School). The current Principal is Vartoug Balekjian.
Armenian Evangelical Secondary School-Anjar was founded in 1940 with classes from KG to High School and a Boarding section. The Principal is Pastor Hagop Akbasharian.
In Syria, Armenian Evangelicals founded numerous schools, mainly in Aleppo, Damascus and Kessab. Currently in Syria there are only five Armenian Evangelical active schools.
Armenian Evangelical Emmanuel School (Aleppo) was founded in 1855 when the Armenian Evangelical Community started to shape in Aleppo. After WWI in 1921 the School opened and moved to Kastal Joura quarter and in 1931 to a new building in Azizie quarter and finally it moved to the Aleppo College campus. Currently, most of the students are non-Armenians.
Armenian Evangelical Bethel School (Aleppo) was founded in 1923. The founder was Hovhannes Haidostian, who taught there until 1941. In 2004-2005 the School added an elementary section and later the high school section. The current Principal is Arousyag Artinian Hallajian.
Syriac Evangelical School (Aleppo) was founded in 1932 on the Syriac Church campus. The Principal now is Sonaly Ghazal.
Armenian Evangelical Martyrs School (Kessab) has existed since 1848 due to the efforts of the missionary Miss Chambers. In 1909, the Turkish forces burnt the School building during their invasion of the Kessab area. Later the School building was renovated and opened its doors back in 1924. The current Principal is Ani Boymoushakian.
Armenian Evangelical School (Damascus) was founded in 1923 in a large room, where 40-50 students gathered. In 1950 KG and Elementary sections were added and enrollment was about 100 (Armenians and non-Armenians). Currently the students are non-Armenian.
Armenian Evangelical Secondary School for Girls-Aleppo College founded in 1930 is a continuation of Central Turkey College (Aintab). At first most of the students were Armenians and many of its graduates achieved high levels of education and positions all over the world. Later when American Missionaries left Syria, the campus was handed over to the UAECNE (girl’s section and Arab Presbyterian Synod boy’s section) to run it. The current Principal is Tamar Soghoyan.
C. HIGHER EDUCATION
Haigazian University was founded on October 17, 1955 by the AMAA and the UAECNE as a liberal arts college to prepare teachers and pastors. When the University (then College) opened in 1955, there were 43 students enrolled. Student enrollment reached 740 before the start of the civil disturbances in Lebanon in 1975. Haigazian University is the only higher education institution in the Armenian Diaspora, and was named in memory of Armenag Haigazian, who was martyred in a Harpurt jail in 1921. The first President of the University was Rev. Dr. John Markarian. Since 2002, the President has been Rev. Paul Haidostian, Ph.D. Thousands of Haigazian University graduates have contributed to Lebanon’s and nearby countries educational, economical and spiritual fields. Haigazian University has established close relationships with universities in Armenia and Artsakh, and with other international universities.
The Near East School of Theology was founded in 1930 by missionaries in the Near East, seeking to strengthen theological education in the area and uniting the theological institutions in Athens and Beirut. In the spring of that year, after a period of negotiations between the Syria Mission (Presbyterian) and the Near East Mission (Congregational), an agreement was reached for the two schools to merge and form the new Near East School of Theology in Beirut. The merger was consummated on November 11, 1932, with Gaius Greenslade as Principal and Loutfi Levonian as Dean. In 1971, the School moved to its new home: a modern, well equipped building in Ras Beirut. The credit for this considerable achievement goes above all to the President at the time the late Rev. Dr. Hovhannes Aharonian, who, from 1959 until his retirement in 1978, presided over the destiny of the School. Currently the President is Dr. George Sabra and the Chairperson of the Board of Trustees is Rev. Megrditch Karagoezian.
Armenian Evangelicals valued most reading the Bible and spiritual literature. The first Spiritual paper, the Nor Avedaper, was published in Beirut, on November 5, 1927 by Rev. Dikran Kherlopian. In 1936 Rev. Manasseh Shnorhokian started publishing the bi-weekly Badanegan Artzakank and in 1937 the Christian Endeavor Society of UAECNE started publishing Chanasser. Both continue to be published today.
Louys, the translation of Upper Room daily devotional booklet has been published since 1939.
The Christian Family Calendar with different themes has been published since 1934.
Kalfayan Press (in memory of AMAA’s former Executive Secretary, the late Rev. Puzant Kalfayan) moved to its new building in KCHAG and operated until the Lebanese war started. Many books, school yearbooks, hymn books, Bible workbooks and papers were edited and published by the UAECNE Publication office.
E. MUSICAL FIELD
Spiritual hymn books – Generally the Armenian hymns are translations of International hymns․ Numerous hymnals have been published over the years. Currently most churches use the UAECNE “Hokevor yerker” hymnbook and the “Spiritual Songs for Worship” hymnbook prepared by Rev. Eflaton Elmajian. Later, Rev. Nerses Balabanian prepared “Nor Yerk Yerketzek Deroch” hymnbook for the youth.
Choirs – During the 1960s and 1970s Dr. Emmanuel Elmajian conducted the Armenian Evangelical United Choir in Beirut, Lebanon. The Armis Choir was founded in 1980 in Beirut and conducted by Maestro Vatsche Barsoumian and later by Rev. Nerses Balabanian, Rev. Nishan Bakalian, Nabil Melki, Maestro Garo Avesian, and since 2018 again by Rev. Nishan Bakalian.
The Dzirani Children’s Choir was founded and conducted by Rev. Nishan Bakalian (2003-2006).
The Nor Yerk Band was founded and led by Rev. Nerses Balabanian in 1993 and gave concerts in 12 countries around the world. The Band was revived in 2015 in Lebanon during the Syrian Civil War and later in 2016 in Montreal QC, Canada for Syrian Armenians relocated in Canada. Besides the “Nor Yerk Yerketzek Deroch” hymnbook, the Nor Yerk Band released eight CDs.
In Syria, the Armenian Evangelical Armis Conservatory operates in Bethel Church campus, and before the Syrian War another Conservatory operated in Missakian Cultural Center in Kessab.
The Zank Youth Band in Aleppo was led by Rev. Nerses Balabanian.
The Genatz Youth Band in Damascus was led by Serop Seropian. The last performance of the Orchestra was in 1996 during the 150th Anniversary Celebration of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Paris.
F. CHRISTIAN ENDEAVOR SOCIETY FOR YOUTH AND ADOLESCENTS
After the Armenian Genocide, during the years 1923-24 the Christian Endeavour (CE) Society continued its mission in Syria and Lebanon due to the efforts of Nejib Shirikjian and Hovhannes Shnorhokian. The CE Executive Committee of Lebanon and Syria holds an annual General Assembly and new members are elected. Currently the Chairperson is Garine Cholakian and the Youth Coordinator is Pastor Datev Basmajian. The CE Union mostly coordinates the youth ministries of local churches and at the same time it runs two summer camp sites – KCHAG (Monte Verdi-Lebanon and Kessab-Syria) where various groups (Children, Teenage, Youth and Young couples) hold their summer camps and conferences.
G. SOCIAL SERVICES
Social services are fundamental actions of Armenian Evangelicals. Caring for needy people, especially during tough times in the Middle East is the main goal of the Social Centers.
Armenian Evangelical Social Service Center (Trad) serves needy people from the area by providing food, medical service and education. The Director is Lena Danaoghlian.
UAECNE is a partner of the Armenian National Sanatorium in Azounieh and CAHL (the Centers for the Armenian Handicapped in Lebanon) which operates an Old Age Home for the elderly.
The Bethel Polyclinic and Dental Clinic operates in the Bethel church
campus and Bedhesda Medical and Dental Clinic in Christ/Action Chrétienne en Orient Church campus both in Aleppo. The Armenian Evangelical Community of Syria is a partner of the Aleppo Old Age Home.
H. INTER-CHURCH RELATIONSHIPS
UAECNE is founding member of World Council of Churches-WCC, Middle East Council of Churches-MECC (founded in 1974 and its first President Rev. Dr. Hovhannes Aharonian), Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches-FMEEC, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches-WCRC.
Other Memberships and Fellowship
The UAECNE is a member of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon (Current President Rev. Joseph Kassab and Executive Secretary Rev. Megrditch Karagoezian), and Action Chrétienne en Orient of Strasbourg, France.
The UAECNE cooperates with the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America (AEUNA), the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches of France, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, the National Evangelical Church of Beirut, the Armenian Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia and the Catholicosate of All Armenians of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate.
Inter Armenian Evangelical
The UAECNE is a member of the Armenian Evangelical World Council and the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA).
*Rosette Alemian is the Director of UAECNE Publications Office