Pastor Vazgen Zohrabyan (photo Aram Arkun)

Abovyan’s Pastor Zohrabyan on US Trip to Raise Support for Church, Artsakh Refugees and Armenia

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TEWKESBURY, MA – Vazgen Zohrabyan, the pastor of Abovyan City Evangelical Church, is visiting the United States this summer. He and his church helped refugees from Artsakh who had reached Abovyan during and after the Artsakh war at the end of 2020. Zohrabyan is giving talks and sermons about the situation in Armenia and Artsakh in various parts of the United States, and part of his trip is in collaboration with Mission Eurasia.

Abovyan City Evangelical Church

Though his church, and a recently established NGO called MIAK (Manukneri inknazarkatsman yev arajentatski kentron [Child Development and Progress Center]), Pastor Vazgen has spearheaded efforts to help refugees from the recent Artsakh war. The Abovyan church had sent a few youth as missionaries to preach in Artsakh and they returned right before the 2020 war broke out. As noted in a March article this year in the Mirror-Spectator (Mission Eurasia Brings Humanitarian Aid and Evangelism to Artsakh War), the church hosted refugees in its own building as well as helped find places for many more in hotels, restaurants and private homes in Abovyan during the war. The number reached around 2,000 in this small city not far from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, and the organization Mission Eurasia, headquartered in Tennessee, stepped in to help.

Bread distributed to a refugee family

Zohrabyan related that throughout the war, he repeatedly told the refugees, “You are safe here. You are secure. The frontline is so far away from here.” Yet one night, on October 1, 2020, during a church meeting at night, suddenly the city was under attack by a drone or rocket from Azerbaijan. Zohrabyan said people speculate that the fuel tanks underneath Abovyan may have been a target.

The refugees became anxious again and for many days on end, Pastor Vazgen had to try to reassure them that they were safe, yet even he was nervous. He said his children were in the church building during the incident. Fortunately, the Armenian armed forces intercepted the rocket or drone and neutralized it.

Bread distributed to refugee children from Artsakh

In all, Zohrabyan summarized, his church and supporters were able to help more than 12,000 families get food supplies, and they also provided spiritual support whenever possible. Many of these families have already left Armenia to return to Artsakh and the church building itself no longer hosts refugees.

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Aid to Refugees Today

Zohrabyan estimates that there are more than 20,000 refugees from Artsakh still living in Armenia, with a large number of them living in the province of Kotayk, in which Abovyan is located. Some live in hotels in the resort town of Tsaghkadzor. They are mostly women and children, along with elderly men. Most of the younger men, Zohrabyan said, are serving in the army in Artsakh now or working in construction there, renovating apartments. Others are in agriculture.

The government of Artsakh is trying to encourage refugees to come back by building them new houses for free, as is the government of Armenia and various Armenian organizations. At the same time, as negative incentive, the Armenian government limits the amount of support it provides the refugees remaining on its own territory, Zohrabyan said.

This puts the refugees in a very difficult situation, as they fear what will happen if Russian forces leave Artsakh in four or five years. This is particularly true, he said, for refugees from Hadrut, who lost their homes and property in Artsakh to Azerbaijan. The refugees are not living comfortably in Armenia due to the abovementioned reason. Consequently, some have left to Russia, as they know the language and many have relatives there, Zohrabyan said, though in Russia, the path to assimilation is very short. Emigration to Russia is also a great temptation for youth in Armenia in general, he added.

Zohrabyan’s church and NGO try to encourage the return of the refugees, but Zohrabyan stresses that most of them remain very anxious due to the uncertainty of the future status of Artsakh. He exclaimed, “The main thing is not financial – it is psychological. Sometimes I ask myself, okay, I am encouraging them to go back, but what if they face another war in the future. But then, what if they don’t go? This is our land and we have to protect it. I spent two years of my own life protecting Artsakh through my military service, so this is very dear to me.”

Supplies distributed to a refugee family

Zohrabyan and his church members visit the nearby refugees from time to time, and bring them bread and other supplies. They work with the children, and sometimes bring their own youth on these visits to provide friendship and Christian fellowship.

Through MIAK, which is supported by Mission Eurasia, several bakeries were established in Armenia, which use refugees from Artsakh as workers and provide free bread to other refugees. The church and MIAK help pay for utilities expenses (gas and electricity) for some of the refugee families in Armenia.

Bread produced at the Abovyan bakery

The main focus now of the assistance by MIAK and the church is the children of the refugees, through afterschool education and summer camp. Zohrabyan explained that most of the refugee families are not motivated to send their children to school, as they lost everything and are in shock. They do not know how long they will remain where they are now, and don’t see the benefit to sending their children to a new school.

One of the refugee children from Artsakh

To counter this, Zohrabyan said they provided free transportation via bus to and from public school. Furthermore, he said, “School is not enough for them. They need some fellowship, which is why we bring them to our building and take them to some sites in the countryside.” Some of the children have lost one or even both parents, and are suffering from serious post-traumatic stress disorders.

The afterschool program provides the children with food, free of charge, and even gives them food boxes for them to take to their parents. There are five days of classes during the week, including on English, home economics, Bible study and Armenian literature and language. Teaching English, Zohrabyan said, was a priority in order to give the children an alternate source of information besides Russian media.

Bibles were printed for children in both Armenian and English, with illustrations and in a very simple language, to be used to teach English and at the same time religion. About 25,000 copies were printed. There were also bibles printed for adults.

Children holding new copies of bilingual Armenian-English bibles

The children are from time to time taken on field trips to historic Armenian sites like Garni, Geghart or Sevan, as many of them, Zohrabyan said, did not know much about Armenian history or religion. The children also get to play games together and have fun. Zohrabyan’s wife is in charge of these programs, and they will continue after a one-month break in August.

Refugee children from Artsakh enjoying their summer thanks to activities organized by the Abovyan City Evangelical Church

Their summer camp program in Abovyan hosted about 300 refugee children in July, and benefited from the help of a team from sister evangelical Armenian churches in Lebanon.

In Artsakh

In addition to working with refugees in Armenia, the Abovyan church group also tries to keep in touch with those who returned to Artsakh. Most are in Stepanakert. Zohrabyan said, “I encourage them, telling them, we remember you. Any time you wish, you can visit Armenia. Know that you have so many families here. Don’t worry — if you need any help, we will come and stand by you.” From time to time, the church sends them supplies and at Christmas, it sent Christmas gifts. Zohrabyan said that recently, a group of young people from the church went to Artsakh to visit them.

Lavash bread newly baked in Abovyan

MIAK is trying to establish a bakery in Stepanakert similar to the ones it has in Armenia, but is having difficulty finding suitable free space there, due to the crowding in the city with an increased population from lost territories like Hadrut and Shushi. Rent for an apartment has risen to almost the same price as in Yerevan. However, Zohrabyan said, in general, the returning refugees get sufficient support in Artsakh from various governmental and nongovernmental groups and there is enough food.

Zohrabyan said he would like to create a branch of MIAK to work with children in Stepanakert, in addition to the bakery, with the support of Mission Eurasia.

Mission Eurasia

Don Parsons, ministry director for unreached people groups for Mission Eurasia, is accompanying Pastor Vazgen on the first leg of his US trip. When asked about what forthcoming work Mission Eurasia is planning with Zohrabyan and MIAK in Armenia, he exclaimed, “We continue to support their work in every way, including summer camps and educational programs. This fall, we will launch some more training, in particular training young people from the ages of 18 to 30 in a variety of different leadership roles in life; most particularly how to be an intentional Christian in a secular society (in the broad sense), and being an intentional believer in Christ and living for him in the midst of your business, doctoring, or life in general.”

Don Parsons, at left, with Pastor Vazgen Zohrabyan (photo Aram Arkun)

Parsons added, “The foundation of all that training is the word of God. That is the only solid truth that there is. …If people have a purpose to live outside themselves, then everything else falls into place.”

Pastor Vazgen pointed out that the Armenian educational system started with the bible in Mesrob Mashtots’ time, when it was necessary first to translate it into Armenian with a new alphabet for the Armenian language. He said, “Christianity thus brought education to Armenia. We need to perhaps go back to our roots now.”

Zohrabyan Finds His Calling and Keeps Going

Zohrabyan was born in Yerevan in 1981. When he was in a summer Pioneer Camp, at the age of nine years old, his life was changed after a visiting Armenian missionary from France visited and gave him a bible for children. He related, “I grew up in an atheistic family. My grandparents, my mother and my father didn’t believe in God, so I never heard about it. This was my first experience with Christianity.” His parents saw the book and took it away from him, saying this is not for children, but it had already changed his life. Ever since then, he prayed that he would have the chance to meet that missionary again and thank him.

Several decades later, Pastor Vazgen was preaching in Los Angeles at the biggest Armenian Evangelical church there, and as he introduced himself, he related this story. He noticed the local pastor was affected. The pastor approached him after his sermon and asked him whether it was in August, 1990 at Tsaghkadzor, and when Zohrabyan affirmed that it was, the pastor hugged him, began to cry, and said that he was the missionary.

Zohrabyan went to Yerevan State University after high school to get a degree in international relations (1998-2004). He said, “It is helpful because I travel a lot. I traveled to Turkey and I used to travel to Iran.” He has also traveled in much of Europe and has been to the US several times prior to his current trip.

Zohrabyan became a pastor and founder of Abovyan City Evangelical Church in 2003, while still a student, after he and his wife were invited for bible study in Abovyan, but he then went to serve in the army of the Republic of Armenia from 2004-2006. There he founded a newspaper and library. While still in the army, in 2005 he began to translate the theological works of Derek Prince into Armenian, and in 2006 became a director of Derek Prince Ministries and its representative in the Caucasus region for its publishing, printing and distribution work. In 2009, he began studying through distance learning at Global University, based in the Pentecostal tradition and located in Springfield, Missouri, and received a bachelor’s degree in theology from it.

Fluent in Armenian, Russian and English, he has translated many works, and authored his own Armenian-language volume, Kez hamar huys ka [There Is Hope for You], published in 2016. He has his own blog: https://vazgenarseni.com/.

Among his interests, Zohrabyan said, “I have a passion to reach the Hamshen [Hemshin] Armenians because they are left alone and forgotten, and many Armenians are not even aware of them. I was in Istanbul and had some contacts with priests there. I noticed some Turks used to come and visit the church during the liturgy, and that some of them had gotten baptized by this Armenian priest. I asked the priest, who was my good friend, and he said they were from Hamshen. Some are Christians and others Muslims, but many speak Armenian and understand us.” He added that for some reason, the Armenian government has no policy concerning them, perhaps out of fear of Turkey.

In the USA

Mission Eurasia invited Pastor Vazgen for the first 12 days of his current US trip, after which on August 17, he will go to visit Armenian Protestant churches in Los Angeles with which he is in touch. He, traveling with his family, went first to New York in early August, and then to Nashua, New Hampshire, where he gave a sermon at Trinity Baptist Church. He went on to give several sermons and had meetings in Nashville, Murfreesboro, Chattanooga, and Lenoir City in Tennessee, including at Mission Eurasia headquarters and at Baptist and Pentecostal churches which have been involved with Mission Eurasia. Some of the sermons are available online already, and he gave an interview to Moody Radio in Nashville on August 16.

Zohrabyan said that he would be informing his East Coast audiences about Armenia and its problems, and involve them in the process. He said that they so far appeared interested, especially after hearing that Armenia is a Christian nation. Parsons observed that people don’t really even know where Armenia is, or that there are close to 200 million Muslims in the region surrounding its territory.

Pastor Vazgen speaking accompanied by slides at an American church

Zohrabyan is doing fundraising on this trip not only for his Abovyan church but also for the MIAK NGO. He said, “Everywhere I go, I tell people about my nation, my history, and my country, and motivate them to come and visit Armenia. If we have many tourists in my country, this will produce a good income and also safety. If you have tourists from America there, then the American government will also be interested in Armenia’s stability.”

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