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Armenia: Land of Saint Gregory the Illuminator

A country only the size of Maryland, many American Christians might not know about the hidden gem of Armenia, nestled in the South Caucuses with Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, Iran at the southern border, and Turkey to the west. The capital city of Yerevan is shadowed by the most spectacular view of Mount Ararat, where Christian explorers claim to have found remnants of Noah’s Ark beneath the snow and volcanic debris in 2010. Archeologists disagree and claim remnants of the ark will never be found.  

While Noah’s Ark might never be discovered, the story of why Armenia became the first Christian country in the world should be known. Raised as a Greek Christian in the Cappadocia, Gregory (Grigor Lusavorich) survived a massacre of his family after his father had killed the Armenian King Khosrov of Kadj. Later, Gregory returned to Armenia and served in the court of the King, but he stood up against the worship of idols and pagan religions of the period. King Tiriidates IV (known as Tiridates the Great) had Gregory imprisoned, tortured, and thrown into the “pit of oblivion” at the Khor Virap prison at Artashat. No one expected Gregory ever to return alive. 

I woke up the next morning to news of bombings along the Azerbaijan border.

After 13 years, the king had a terrible boar accident and was going to die. The king’s sister believed that Gregory would be the only one to save him. Gregory was freed, the king was healed, and Gregory sought to convert him to Christianity in 301 CE making Armenia the first Christian state in the Roman empire and the world. Known as Gregory the Illuminator, he became the first Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of all Armenians. Today, his Holiness Karekin II sits as the 132nd successor to Saint Gregory the Illuminator and occupies the throne of St. Gregory in the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin today. 

I had the privilege of traveling to Armenia this September, and upon arriving on September 12, 2022, I woke up the next morning to news of bombings along the Azerbaijan border. The current conflict dates back to the resolution of the former Soviet Union in the early nineties. The first major war in the region focused on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which claimed independence in 1992 but was unrecognized by the international community. Fighting between Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijanis continued and resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. By the time the fighting ended, Armenians had expanded their territory and had control of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Since then, the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has yet to be resolved, and there have been skirmishes and escalations over the years. The second major war came in 2020 and is known as the 44-day or Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. According to the Crisis Group, since the 2020 war, Azerbaijan controls substantial parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian peacekeeping forces patrol the area to protect the Armenian population still living in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

For decades the mistreatment and atrocities against Armenians remained largely ignored.

The September 13, 2022 bombings by Azerbaijan were the latest in escalations. However, several attacks happened on territory in the sovereign territory of Armenia. While the world, in large part, was neutral, U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia with a small Congressional delegation and spoke out against the attacks, strongly condemning them and identifying them as illegal. 

Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) engages in peacebuilding around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict because of our strong ties to the Armenian Orthodox Church and because of the large population of Armenian Christians in the Middle East. After the early 20th century genocide of Armenian Christians, the world stood by and did not intervene. For decades the mistreatment and atrocities against Armenians remained largely ignored. It wasn’t until 2021 that President Biden became the first U.S. President to acknowledge the genocide of the Armenian people 100 years after it had happened. 

Today, the sustainability of the Christian community in the Middle East continues to be a significant challenge. Historic ancient Christian holy sites in Nagorno-Karabakh (including thousands of khachkars or stone crosses) are being destroyed by the Azerbaijanis, seeking to erase the historical presence of Armenians, which they experience as a continuation of the ethnic cleansing they once experienced under the Ottoman Turks. CMEP has spoken out for a negotiated settlement between Azerbaijan and Armenia since the 2020 war. You can read our statements and learn more about the conflict here: 

Photo provided by the author: Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP)’s executive director, Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, and the CMEP delegation met with His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians in September 2022.


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