A Village Remembered: The Armenians of Habousi - The Compatriotic Union of Habousi

Chapter 18:

The Missionary Movement and the School

All Armenian schools were primitive at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Habousi was no exception. It is well known that in many villages studious pupils learned their lessons on barn floors.

But the period between 1850 to 1875 turned out to be one of enlightenment, deeply affecting the lives of Armenians and changing their future course.

The main phenomenon in that period was the presence of American missionaries and the massive involvement of some European countries in educational and religious movements. Regardless of their political or religious agendas, these foreigners brought the light of civilization from West to East.

There was already a movement within the Armenians toward enlightenment. Armenian students were leaving for Germany to complete their education in German universities. The beneficial impact of French principles in civil liberties was already felt in Armenian community life.

Mkrtich Khrimian(1) established a press in the monastery of Varak, in the Vilayet of Van, and his “Ardzvi Vaspurakan” (a periodical literally meaning “The Eagle of Vaspurakan”) was read in the villages and cities of all six Armenian Vilayets. It spread a new spirit and consciousness among the Armenians.

Before Khrimian, the Mekhitarists(2) paved the road for an Armenian renaissance by publishing many books in history, literature, and sciences. Both in Eastern and Western Armenia, benefactors and educational organizations had also begun to establish secondary schools.

But this birth had its shadow side. The missionaries brought a turbulence with them to Habousi. Parishioners of the Armenian Apostolic Church who followed the faith of their ancestors for centuries were deeply upset by the introduction of this “new religion.” Opposition reached a point where it was forbidden to bury a Protestant in the Armenian Apostolic cemetery.

Armenian Evangelists established their own school in the village. Setrag Hagopian, a brilliant graduate of Euphrates College, devoted himself to arbitration and succeeded in calming emotions.

The Protestant or missionary movement entered Habousi in 1850 (though some say it was present from 1840). Protestant missionaries first established themselves in Kharpert and then began to spread their word in the surrounding villages. The main attraction of the villagers to the Protestant movement was the availability of the Gospel in modern Armenian, a language they understood, and by understanding God’s word their religious needs were satisfied.

Missionaries disseminated the Gospel in modern Armenian to all villagers free of charge. At the beginning villagers didn’t want to even look at the foreign preacher. Calling him “Prod,” they kept a distance. But gradually they were attracted to the new movement that was fully developed by 1870.

A man named Ousta Margos built a meeting room on the top of his house with his own hands. It was across the street from the Armenian Apostolic Church. Margos gave it to the Evangelical community to be used both as a church and as a school.

The first missionary to Habousi was Dr. Wheeler (one of the founders of the movement). Later arrived Mr. Brown, Mr. Knapp, Mr. Kerry, Miss Bush and others.

A brave preacher was Benne Margos (Bennanian), who was nicknamed “square wheel” for his shortness and fatness. He went from door to door preaching and he increased the number of parishioners substantially.

It was told about him that one day, because of a conflict, three tax-collecting Turkish policemen were sent to his house to beat him on the pretext that he hadn’t paid his tax. The policemen didn’t want to hear his arguments, and the notables of the village laughed at the scene. Aggravated, Margos lifted all three policemen and threw them in a swamp. Then he disappeared for weeks until the incident was forgotten.

Villagers fought against the Protestants. Friendly relations turned to animosity, engagements were annuled, weddings joining Protestants with Apostolic Armenians were prohibited, and constant quarrels and fights took place. The body of a Protestant secretly buried in the Armenian Apostolic cemetery was exhumed.

The first Protestants of Habousi were Reverend Hagop Boyajian, called also Der Margossian, Ghougas Der Bedrosian, Rev. Simonian, Yezegelian, Akmakjian, Bzdi Garoyenk, Matorian, Karamanoukian, Kassabian, and Antoian, and their families as well as some individuals from other families.

Impressed by the Rev. Wheeler’s speeches, many refrained from drinking. Protestant families initiated the building of a thirty by seventy foot church at the south end of the village, in which they designated a space for their school and teacher. Prior to the massacres of 1895, Murat and Sahag Varjabeds taught there together with Rev. Garabed Medzadourian and Rev. Hagop Simonian.

After the massacres, when the survivors returned to the village, they found the church as well as many houses totally destroyed and burned. Luckily, the school was unharmed. Whether Apostolic or Protestant, Armenians equally used it in harmony. Within a year the Apostolic Armenians rebuilt their church, but the Protestants were denied the right to rebuild their church by the government. Therefore, they built a meeting house, a school, and a house for the preacher in a different location. In 1910, two years after the Ottoman Constitution was declared, Rev. Armenag Simonian succeeded in securing a permit to rebuild the destroyed church. A carpenter named H. Boyajian undertook leadership of the project, and together with others and the financial and physical support of the villagers the church was renovated within six months. Rev. Armenag Simonian preached there until the end of the Armenian presence in Habousi in 1915. Before him Rev. Hampartsoum Sarajian, Rev. Khachadour Vartanian, and Rev. Bedros Boyajian (from Kurdistan) preached there.

Yeghia Donabedian (from Kharpert), Hovsep Bardizbanian (from Ourfa), Hovhannes Hagopian (from Malatia), Rev. Armenag Simonian, and Bedros Gharibian (from Mezre, a graduate of the German school) taught at the Protestant school. The girls’ school had its own teachers.

After the massacres of 1895, the missionaries took Armenian orphans and sons and daughters of needy families to Kharpert, where they received education at Euphrates College and learned trades.

Among Euphrates College’s graduates were Rev. Garabed Medzadourian, Rev. Hagop Meynoian or Simonian, Rev. Hagop Boyajian or Der Margossian, Rev. Mardiros Der Mardirosian, Rev. Armenag Simonian, Dr. Arshag Der Margossian, Setrag Karamanoukian, Yeghsa Najarian, Kevork Meynoian or Minasian, and Vartouhi Simonian.

Hayrabed Ajemian, Zadour Ajemian, Kohar Boghossian or Der Bedrosian, Markarid Najarian, Varter Boyajian, Garabed Der Hovan nessian and Boghos Meynoian didn’t have the chance to complete their education at Euphrates College because of the genocide.

Habousi and neighboring villages benefited also from the graduates of other colleges, such as Antranig Boyajian, from the French College of Mezre, and the preacher Markar Nanigian, from the German seminary.

Turks, naturally, wanted to take advantage of the appearance of Protestantism in Armenian regions and use it as a means of destroying Armenian unity. Adopting a “Divide and Rule” policy, the government began to register Protestant Armenians separately, as a Protestant Millet (Protestant nation). Catholic Armenians were treated similarly, for the same reason. These new denominational communities had their own moukhtar (mayor) and ruling bodies.

The Turks went as far as to prefer Protestant Armenians over Apostolic Armenians as witnesses in court. All these were fiendish acts to deepen animosity between the denominations and to favor Protestant ism, in order to increase its followers.

Although Protestantism brought educational and moral benefits to the Habousetzies, national unity suffered by Turkish encouragement. Finally, the Turks realized that foreign powers were behind the Protestant movement and they tried to limit Protestant activity after that. This was the reason behind the refusal of the Turks to allow the Protestants the right to rebuild their church after the massacres of 1895.

Here is a touching incident from the sad period of Apostolic-Protestant conflict.

Toro, an Apostolic Armenian, went to the funeral of his late Protestant relative Manoug Najar Apoian. When the mourners arrived at the Protestant cemetery, they put the coffin down. Toro noticed that the hole dug for the coffin was wet. Upset by this, he voted against burying Manoug there. “What do you want us to do?” asked the other mourners. “We have to bury him in our cemetery,” replied Toro. People refused saying, “But he’s Protest ant.” “No matter what happened, he’s our Mano” insisted Toro and Mano was buried in the national cemetery. This incident was the end of discrimination between Apostolics and Protestants.

Once the Balkan War was over, Apkar Melkonian’s son Nishan, Nazareth Minasian and Alexan Proodian returned to their village of Habousi. Their presence was celebrated by gun-shots and song and music organized by teacher Giragos Proodian. The Protestant teacher was Kevork Minasian, a student at Euphrates College.

In the square of the Najarian’s Spring, villagers and students sang together. There were Turks too. (To give an example of the standard of education among the Turks, it suffices to mention that every time they had to write a letter in Turkish, they came to the village seeking help from Armenians.)

On the eve of 1913, Boghos Minasian, who had recently arrived from the United States, invited all Habousetzies involved in school management for a meeting at the school. Newly agreed upon arrangements were helping bridge the gap between Apostolic and Protestant Armen ians.

The school principal was Ohan Kojigian. Krikor Antoian was assistant principal and Boghos Minasian was supervisor. Kevork Minasian was the head of the teachers’ group; his assistants were Hagop Kurmuzian and newly ordained Fr. Kapriel.

The Apostolic school reached the height of its advancement. It became overcrowded.

Mrs. Yughaper Barsamian was elected teacher for the girls’ school. She taught writing and reading to newly wed women during after-school hours, when it was time for her to rest.
Simon Simonian and Malkhas Kassabian headed the Protestant School Committee.

By 1913, differences and discrimination between Apostolic and Protestant denominations had faded and the educational life in Habousi witnessed a boost. But only for a very short time, until the genocide unfortunately.