Martin Luther and the Armenians

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By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOCHUM-LINDEN, Germany — This year 2017 Germans celebrated the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Dubbed as “Luther Year,” it hosted hundreds of commemorative events, lectures, special church services, festivities, concerts and exhibitions throughout the country.

Few would have thought that “Armenia in Luther Year” could have been among the celebrations. And yet, on November 11, the Evangelical Church in Bochum-Linden hosted just such a festive gathering. Together with the Armenisch-Akademischer Verein 1860 e.V., the oldest Armenian association in Germany, the Church of Christ parish presented a program of lectures and music. Pastor Rolf Schuld, who coined the title, spoke of the connection between two themes that are very close to his heart. In his welcoming remarks, he pointed to the warm relationship his parish has developed with Armenia over many years. Since the construction of the bronze sculpture, “Ode to Peace – Pulsar” by artist Albert Vardanyan in 2006, this Protestant parish feels so closely bound to Armenia that, especially over the past years, various concerts, exhibitions and other events commemorating April 24 have taken place in the community center, in cooperation with the AAV. And the parish is also known in Armenia: outside the Berlin Art Hotel in Gyumri, which hosts artistic activities, one can admire the same statue representing “Pulsar” – an ode to peace. Sculptor Vardanyan comes from Gyumri.

Luther in Mesrob’s Footsteps…

The intimate links between Armenia and Luther reach back centuries, as Prof. Armenuhi Drost-Abarjan illustrated in a wonderful address titled, “Invention of the Armenian Alphabet and Bible Translations in the Mother Tongue in the 5th century.”

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Drost-Abarjan is professor of Armenian Studies at the Halle-Wittenberg University.

Since “Luther Year” has been recognized as a celebration not only of the German Reformer, but of Christianity as a whole, it is fitting to consider other figures as well, whether co-thinkers or forerunners, whether relatively unknown or world famous.

In this context one must place the figure of the great Mesrop Mashtots (360-440) who, almost 1,100 years before Luther, translated the Bible into the vernacular, thus contributing to the development of an Armenian national literature.  But, she added, it is not only in this pioneering work of language creation that they are similar; there are also cultural, political and religious aspects that are comparable. Both fought to defend their “heathen tongues” — Armenian and German — in contrast to the sacred languages of the scriptures.

Drost-Abarjan noted that the early Reformers, in establishing their own theological stances and concepts of the church, looked to the experience of the autocephalous churches, those that had become independent of the Roman or Byzantine churches. When they sent envoys to the Orient, to contact representatives of the autocephalous churches, they soon became aware of the Armenians, who had translated the Bible into Armenian (grapar) in the 5th century, using the alphabet invented by Mesrop. In 1520 Luther wrote about the “Greeks and many others who hold mass in their own languages,” and Thomas Münzer, his contemporary and comrade-in-arms, mentions the Armenians by name as among these “many others.” The methods used by Mesrop and by Luther, to conduct the necessary research to craft a vernacular were also strikingly similar, Drost-Abarjan showed.

She sketched a concise yet thorough overview of the history of the Armenian language, stressing the role it has played in shaping the political, economic, social as well as religious and cultural life of the people. Thus, it became clear why Armenians attribute such a profound and emotional meaning to the language and the church, and how a veritable “book cult” could develop, as institutions like the Matenadaran testify.

And with the language of the church came music: it was a happy coincidence that the talented soprano Lusine Arakelyan from Gyumri and Yerevan was in Germany at the time, and could accept the invitation to perform at the event. Singing a cappella, she presented by Mesrop Mashtots the sharagan Megha Kes Ter and by Komitas Krunk. Her rich, powerful delivery overwhelmed the audience. “When have we ever heard such singing here?” asked one listener, “A voice that sends tremors through you.”

Prof. Ute Gause, professor of evangelical theology (Church History) at the Ruhr University in Bochum, then spoke on “The Significance of Martin Luther’s Bible Translation into German,” the sensational achievement which has been at the center of this year’s celebrations. As a musical tribute, soprano Andrea Kampmann sang chorales from Martin Luther, accompanied on the piano by Martina Fleischer.

In his concluding remarks, Azat Ordukhanyan, president of the AAV, spoke about the activities that his association has organized in the Church of Christ in Bochum. These included the commemoration of the 500,000 Armenian victims of World War II, and the planting of 155 trees that he had brought from Armenia to Bochum in 2015. They have been planted in various locations, including the graveyard for war prisoners and forced laborers in the Bochum cemeteries, the Jewish cemetery and in front of museums and schools. In 2015, he noted, it was the first time that a German institution had commemorated the victims of the genocide, “The Friends of Nature from Bochum-Linden”. (See “Armenian Trees Planted in Germany to Bear Fruits of Friendship and Reconciliation,” May 25, 2015 and “Armenia and Germany Renew a Thousands-Year-Old Friendship,” September 17, 2015).

(Material for this article was provided by Heide Rieck-Wotke, a co-organizer of the event.)