More than 100 years ago, an 18-year-old girl staggered into an American relief camp set up along Russia’s border with Armenia.
Immediately, a nurse came to her side. “Are you in pain?” she asked.
“No,” the girl replied, “but I have learned the meaning of the cross.”
Slowly, the girl pulled her sleeve down, revealing on her bare shoulder the figure of a cross burned deeply into her flesh. For seven days, Turkish assailants in her village had asked her whether she would follow Mohammed or Christ.
“Christ, always Christ,” she replied daily. In response, one segment of the cross was branded on her shoulder each day. On the last day, her captors told her she would die the following day if she didn’t reject Christ.
Fortunately, she escaped that night. But this girl wasn’t alone in her suffering, and many Armenians never escaped. On April 24, 1915, the Ottoman Turks ruling in the region had launched a genocidal program against the Armenian people group. As a result, as many as 600,000 Armenians may have died on that day alone.
A Eurasian nation the size of Maryland with the geography of western Colorado, Armenia is recognized as one of the first countries in the world to accept the Christian religion. Often, as in the genocide of 1915, they became targets of persecution. For this reason, the Armenian people even today show great pride in their country’s Christian heritage.
Even though they value this national heritage, many Armenians have no personal relationship with Christ, and many have a limited knowledge of God’s word. But recent conflict in the region between Armenia and its culturally Muslim neighbor, Azerbaijan, has opened doors for gospel outreach among the Armenian people.
The crisis began when, in late September, fighting once again erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conflict centered around a contested territory called Nagorno-Karabakh — an enclave within Azerbaijan that is roughly the size of Delaware and that was largely populated by ethnic Armenians. To the Armenians, the contested region is known as Artsakh.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the conflict led to 5,000 deaths on both sides, and it forced more than 100,000 civilians to flee their homes. Most fighting ended Nov. 9 with a Russian-brokered ceasefire.
One family with Missouri Baptist roots is taking advantage of the opportunity to share God’s love amid the hurt that the people of Armenia feel. David Smith grew up in a Missouri Baptist church in St. Louis and felt God’s call to missions during a Missouri Baptist Convention Super Summer event in the late 1980s. During college, he met his wife — then a nursing student in Oklahoma — while they were both training for a summer project in Africa.
Today, the Smiths serve as Southern Baptist relief workers, having spent two decades working with the people of Armenia. In the aftermath of recent conflict, they have worked with local churches to help refugees from the region of Artsakh.
Through funds from SEND Relief Global, they have helped to provide clothing, hygiene and household items, blankets and other necessities. They’ve helped train Armenian doctors how better to counsel and treat soldiers with PTSD, and they’ve brought comfort to doctors struggling from “compassion fatigue.”
Smith hopes these efforts to help the Armenian people amid hardship will strengthen relationships and open new avenues for gospel witness.
Smith urges Southern Baptists to continue praying for the region:
- That there would be peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan
- That God would bring His comfort to the families of those who have died because of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan
- That, in Christ, churches would grow in unity
- That God would pour His Spirit out in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, so that people would hear the gospel, repent and trust in Christ
- That God would bless the Smiths and their two children as they continue their work in the region.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Names have been changed for security reasons. For more information on the recent conflict in the region, go to tabonline.org/armenia-news.