Church Refuses to Grant Baptism to Hidden Armenians

 Raffi Bedrosyan, Toronto, 18 August 2015

Along with many high points experienced during the historic trip of 80 hidden Armenians from Turkey, there were also a few low points. The highs included warm welcomes by Armenian government officials and people on the street, emotional triumphs at Sardarabad, feelings of grief at the Genocide Museum, new-found friendships, accomplishments such as spelling the alphabet during Armenian language classes, or simply being able to order food in Armenian at a restaurant. However, I want to point out a few of the lows our hidden Armenians encountered—all related to baptism.

Diyarbakir Armenians baptized at Etchmiadzin in August 2014
(Photo by Gulisor Akkum/The The Armenian Weekly)

Among the members of our group, two girls from Dersim and a young man from Diyarbakir wished to be baptized. Unfortunately, their wish did not come true.

 Raffi Bedrosyan, Toronto, 18 August 2015

Along with many high points experienced during the historic trip of 80 hidden Armenians from Turkey, there were also a few low points. The highs included warm welcomes by Armenian government officials and people on the street, emotional triumphs at Sardarabad, feelings of grief at the Genocide Museum, new-found friendships, accomplishments such as spelling the alphabet during Armenian language classes, or simply being able to order food in Armenian at a restaurant. However, I want to point out a few of the lows our hidden Armenians encountered—all related to baptism.

Diyarbakir Armenians baptized at Etchmiadzin in August 2014
(Photo by Gulisor Akkum/The The Armenian Weekly)

Among the members of our group, two girls from Dersim and a young man from Diyarbakir wished to be baptized. Unfortunately, their wish did not come true.

In recent days, Armenian media—both in the Diaspora and in Armenia—ran news reports and opinion pieces on the topic. Individuals gave press conferences; people opined on TV; statements were released by the church, government, Diaspora organizations, and political parties; while heated debates on social media argued both for and against the decision to refuse the baptisms.

As the organizer of the group whose three members wished to be baptized, and as the designated godfather or “gnkahayr” for these baptisms, I would like to provide a first-hand account of what happened, why it happened, and what we should do to avoid such scandals in the future.

Some readers may recall that during the trip I organized last year for the 50 hidden Armenians from Diyarbakir to Armenia, we arranged the baptism of a man and a woman in Echmiadzin. The man was a teacher in a public school in Diyarbakir. As Christians are not allowed to work in the public sector in Turkey—not even as garbage collector, let alone as teacher—he took a great risk by converting to Christianity. He was prepared for it; and I am happy to report that he is still employed as a teacher. This year, he brought his son to Armenia to extend the process of returning to Armenian roots to the next generation. The woman baptized last year, on the other hand, had a more ominous challenge. Her husband, a devout Moslem Kurd, had forbidden her from taking such a step. She nevertheless decided to convert to Christianity to keep her promise to her hidden Armenian father, who had asked her to become a Christian Armenian at his deathbed. I am also pleased to report that she and her husband are still happily married, and are now bravely facing the challenge of how to raise their child together—whether as an Armenian, a Kurd, a Christian, or a Moslem.

Therefore, this year when three members of our group approached me with their wish to be baptized, I thought—perhaps naively—that again I could go ahead and arrange the baptisms for the day we visit Echmiadzin. The two Dersimtsi girls would take the names Anahit and Nairi, and the Dikranagerdtsi man from Diyarbakir would become Madteos Paramaz. One of the Dersim girls had a brother who was already baptized last year. The Dikranagerdsi man was a distant relative of the family involved in the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Church in Diyarbakir.

Unfortunately, the baptisms could not take place in Echmiadzin or in the Khor Virab Church the next day, or in Surp Hovhannes Church in Yerevan the following day. The explanations given to us were as varied as the clerics involved. Some said we had to apply in writing months in advance; then, the applications would be reviewed by a religious council before permission could be considered. Others said we needed to bring a letter from the Istanbul Acting Patriarch Archbisop Aram Atesyan granting permission for the baptisms. One cleric suggested the candidates must visit Armenia at least three times before being eligible. An even more preposterous suggestion came from a cleric who wondered why we don’t go to churches in Turkey since those wishing to be baptized are all from Turkey, instead of causing headaches for him and his superiors. I didn’t bother telling him that although there are churches in Istanbul, no churches are left in historic Armenia except the one we reconstructed in Diyarbakir. Overall, these clerics seemed to be unprepared as to how to deal with the baptism requests and had to make endless calls to their superiors for a decision, which either did not come or were ultimately negative. In any case, they would still lead us on, that by tomorrow, there may be a positive decision. So, each day—with our hopes high, after buying the required towels, crosses, and headscarves for the girls—we would face renewed disappointment. Even the intervention of the Minister of Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan did not achieve the desired outcome.

An even more upsetting development was the zeal of critics to use this incident to start misguided attacks. Rather than criticize the decision itself or the persons who made the decision, individuals have made statements at at press conferences and on TV, or written articles in newspapers, attacking the Armenian Church, the Ministry of Diaspora, and the government in general. One organization called "Republic of Western Armenia" even went as far as issuing fictitious citizenship and identification cards with the baptized names printed on them, displaying the cards with a fictitious flag, name, and photo at press conferences and on TV. It seems these people forget or don’t care that the two Dersim girls and the Diyarbakir man will return to Turkey, will continue living among Muslim Turks and Kurds, with their names paraded on a fictitious republic’s fake citizenship cards. Do they have the right to jeopardize the lives of these already endangered persons? Or for that matter, do any of these opinion makers, who pass along all sorts of judgment in the media, care about the emotions of these three young people who had made such a personal decision as changing their faith, their religion?

The hidden Armenians have no control over their ethnic roots, their genetic identity—they were given no choice. They were born as Armenians, even though that fact was not revealed to them until later in life. Some of them have now made a conscious decision to return to their ethnic roots. But changing religion by converting to Christianity is an entirely different matter. No one is born with a religion—Christian or Muslim. Religion is not a genetic identity but a faith acquired by personal choice and through family. If someone has made the decision to become Christian through baptism, there should be no individual, no institution, or no force to prevent that from happening—especially in the case of hidden Armenians, who are taking a risk by revealing their Armenian identity, and by converting to Christianity. If the reason for these increasingly more difficult barriers that prevent baptisms is misgivings of abuse, there should be other ways of dealing with them quickly and without delay. Sure, there could be some Muslim Turks or Kurds just pretending to be hidden Armenians. There could be others who have no intention of becoming Christian Armenian and who are getting baptized to gain some sort of advantage, such as employment or a way out of Turkey and into Europe or the Americas. However, these exceptions should not lead to Draconian rules and regulations for all others who genuinely want to become Christian. Moreover, why do we have godfathers? The role of the godfather is to assure the Church that the person being baptized is eligible and worthy of baptism, and there should be no excuse or delay by the cleric for further investigation.

The objective of "Project Rebirth" is to help the hidden Armenians think, feel, and act as Armenians. Our work will continue regardless of the barriers placed by certain people. Whether these hidden Armenians become Christian or not, they have decided to return to their Armenian roots, and we will continue to encourage them. It would be ideal if the Church also fulfills its duty in encouraging them to become Christian Armenians, but if not, it is still alright. After all, Armenians were Armenians for centuries before they adopted Christianity.

13 comments
  1. Continue the Good Work

    Dear Raffi,

    I am amazed, disappointed and shocked to see these preposterous obstacles being placed in front of what seems like genuine people who wish to convert into Armenian Christianity.

    What is the matter with our clerics and our government? What a disappointment for these people who have made the journey and gone through the trouble (and risks) to be baptized, only to be sent back empty-handed? 

    We should embrace them with open arms and increase the population with a further few Armenians albeit still living in Turkey.

    I wish you all the best in your efforts and good luck to you.

  2. Baptism of Hidden Armenians

    Thanks for sharing this valuable information. It is critical for our Armenian clergy to immediately come together and solve this very important problem. Lord have mercy on us all. Courageous Armenians who have openly stated in Turkey their desire to convert, have put their lives in danger. My maternal grandmother Nartoui Parnagian, who barely escaped the Genocide from Chimishgatsak,  would lament: "We are our own worst enemy".  Now I fully understand what she meant. My heart breaks for these lost Armenians who have found their way back to our Christian faith. What would Jesus say and do? I pray that our Apostolic religious leaders immediately remedy the mistakes that have been made. In the name of all that is holy and divine…bring all of our people together. 

  3. One Issue

    This is one issue that Armenians cannot ignore and remain silent. The church has to serve the public needs or become a museum

    1. The Armenian Church

      Sam,
      The Armenian Church is not only the Apostolic but also the Catholic and Evangelical Armenian churches are as well as a growing trend of non-denominational Christian faith churches.

      Thankfully, Armenians have more than one avenue to live their Christian experience but each has its own tradition and validate Christian expressions in their own ways. We do have choices and the Armenian Church has kept pace with changing times.

       

  4. Withholding Judgement

    Something has happened that the Armenian Apostolic Church seems to have stopped readily baptizing Islamized Armenians. The natural tendency would be to condemn their reluctance.

    I attended the anointing of Holy Muron of a non-Armenian in preparation for his marriage to an Armenian the following week. It was an elaborate service. Should not the adults who like to be baptized have some understanding of the tenets of the Apostolic Church and know that they have a commitment to the Armenian Church in way of tithing?

    I am an advocate of the Armenian Apostolic Church baptizing hidden Islamized Armenians, but I am withholding my judgment until I have a clearer understanding of the matter.

  5. Refusing Baptism

    On the surface, based on the breath of God, it is inconceivable to refuse baptism to someone who willingly is coming to faith. If God is love and commands us to love each other, doing otherwise, especially within the church does not show a responsible action. God have mercy upon us, great sinners that we are.

  6. Armenian Clergy

    It seems that there are still ignorant, archaic, clergy among  "hovivs" .I am under the impression that some are just plucked out from the populace, locked in a room for 40 days, thought them some prayers and presto they are clergy….

    Maybe we should follow how Armenian catholics prepare their clergy…seven years of schooling..

    1. Re: Serj

      Serj

      The priests of the Armenian Apostolic Church are not minted after locking them in a room for forty days.

      The matter is about  Islamized hidden Armenians who seek baptism.

      Speculative as it may be. In your opinion will the Armenian Catholic Priests, after their seven years of schooling. baptize Islamized hidden Armenians on the spur of the moment at their request?

  7. I’m sure it must be dificult

    I'm sure it must be difficult for unwitting priests when confronted by requests to dispense the sacrament of baptism to strangers on demand.  I understand that in many other churches – for better or worse – the process is quite elaborate.  

    For me, I am told that it was the gift of my parents and my godfather, who vouched for me before I was able to walk and talk.  Maybe there needs to be a separate process for those who are old enough to walk and talk.

    At this point, it seems too easy to bash the Armenian Church – or those who hope to express their faith through it – before they have had a chance to get their respective acts together.

    But, YES, the Armenian church needs to get its act together in order to face these rapidly changing times.

  8. No Need

    There's no need to be "officially" acknowledged as Christians or Armenians by the lords of hypocritical institutions. If one considers himself an Armenian, that's adequate condition but the complementary condition will be to start to live with the attributes that signify Armenians such as speaking the language and the rest. 

  9. A cult?

    Very disturbing situation. The evidence points to some sort of pressure from either the Turkish govt. or a secret society that manages church policies. This type of decision puts the Armenian apostolic Church in the category of a cult; as opposed to a freely operating home or union of believers which Christianity was intended to be.

    If the clergy are the ones determining what is in a consenting adult's heart then this church has completely missed the mark of what it means to be a follower and believer of Jesus's teachings. 

    1. Agreed

      Maybe the church leaders need re-education with respect to the bible:

      Mathew 4:18-20:18

      Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. (19) And He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." (20) Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.

      These church leaders seem to fit the mold of ancient pharisees:

      Mathew 15:8-9:8

      This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. (9) But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

      Ironically, when the Turks first came to Anatolia, looking for religion, we might have been able to convert the Turks, and had them assimilate into our culture. Instead, our situation of being expelled from our homeland may have been because of this very attitude exhibited by these church leaders.

  10. Obstacles to Baptism from Armenia’s church leadership

    Obviously many diasporans are up hauled by the "holier than Thou" behavior of our hierarchical church gone dysfunctional.

    You would think their defense would be: It was not our turf! we didn’t believe them, or the head apostle did not authorize us…..or burying our heads in the sand was the safest decision to make.

    There is no church without willing parishioners.  Be a Jesus lamb not a worldly lamb.

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