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The Last Armenians of Myanmar-Burma

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#1 Yervant1


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Posted 28 August 2014 - 08:44 AM

The Last Armenians of Myanmar-Burma
The Last Armenians of Myanmar-Burma

One of the oldest churches in Myanmar, also known as Burma, is struggling to keep going – its congregation only occasionally reaches double figures. But the opening up of the country to outside investment and tourism is offering new hope.

By Andrew Whitehead BBC World Service, Yangon

Reverend John Felix, priest at the Armenian church in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, can’t speak Armenian – but then neither can his congregation. Not that there is much of a congregation these days – just seven, myself included, on a recent Sunday morning.

The 150-year-old church enjoys an imposing location, at a street corner in downtown Yangon. It’s a beautiful building, a patch of calm in a bustling city. The Armenian Orthodox church of St John the Baptist – standing, suitably, on Merchant Street – is almost all that’s left of what was one of the city’s main trading communities.

“To judge from church records, there were once a few hundred Armenian families in Burma but the last ‘full’ Armenian died last year. Across the country, there are no more than 10 or 20 families who are part Armenian – and just a handful still come to the church,” says Felix.

Rachel Minus, in her mid-30s, can sing in Armenian – and does with reverence – but can’t speak the language. She attends on Sundays with her father, who also tolls the church bells.

“My grandfather was full Armenian and our family name is derived from the Armenian surname of Minossian. We’re part Armenian and this church and its services mean a lot to us,” she says.


Percy Everard

On that Sunday, just one other worshipper was of Armenian descent. Percy Everard has been coming to the church for decades. His wedding, the priest believes, was the last to be conducted at the church – but it’s so distant no one is quite sure how long ago it took place.

In the early 17th Century, large numbers of Armenians fled the Ottoman Empire and settled in Isfahan in what’s now Iran. From there, many travelled on in later years to form a commercial network which stretched from Amsterdam to Manila.

Their influence in the British Raj reached its peak in the late 19th Century, when census records suggest that about 1,300 Armenians were living principally in Calcutta, Dhaka and Rangoon.

Their closeness to the Burmese royal court gave them a particularly privileged status in Rangoon’s trading community. The land on which the church stands is said to have been presented to the Armenians by Burma’s king.

The region’s most prestigious hotels – including The Strand a short walk from the church in downtown Yangon and the even more famous Raffles in Singapore – were established by Armenians.

But bit-by-bit over the past century many in these small Armenian outposts, worried by political and economic instability, have looked for a new home – with Australia the most favoured destination.

John Felix – whose bishop is based thousands of miles away in Sydney – is a welcoming and enthusiastic clergyman, proud of his church and unbowed by the difficulties of keeping going as the congregation steadily shrinks.

Felix took over as priest of the Yangon church from his father, who died three years ago after more than 30 years as minister. Like his father, he was initially ordained into the Anglican communion and then re-ordained as an Orthodox priest.

He was born in Myanmar, speaks Burmese – but is of south Indian origin, and so has his roots in another of the migrant communities which once made Yangon such a thriving commercial hub.


The Armenian church in Chennai

He worries about the upkeep of the building. “There are three spots in the roof where the water’s coming in, and we need to get them fixed.”

But this is by any standards a neat, well-kept church, and an important part of Yangon’s rich colonial-era architectural heritage which is increasingly attracting tourists and international attention.

Sunday worship has all the hallmarks of an Orthodox church service – icons, incense and, in spite of the slender attendance, entrancing hymn singing. Felix doesn’t wear the ornate priestly robes in which his father once conducted ceremonies, but he remains firmly part of the Orthodox tradition.


Yangon’s Armenian church at the end of WW2

That Orthodox lineage could be key to the survival of the church – as a spiritual home to all the various forms of Orthodox Christianity as well as a last vestige of an almost-gone Armenian community.

Already diplomats, business visitors and tourists from a range of Orthodox countries and churches – Russian, Greek, Serbian – occasionally swell the numbers at St John the Baptist, the only Orthodox church in Myanmar’s biggest city.

A new worshipper here, Ramona Tarta, is Romanian, a globetrotting business woman, publisher and events organiser who has lived in Yangon for the last few months.

“My faith is very important to me. Wherever I am in the world, I seek out an Orthodox church. But I was about to give up on Yangon. I thought it was the only city I’d ever lived in which had no Orthodox place of worship,” she complains.

She chanced across the Armenian church when driving past, and believes that with a little promotion, this historic building – and the tradition to which it bears testimony – could have a more secure future.

If the church reached out more actively to all strands of Orthodoxy then, she argues, it could attract more worshippers and find a renewed purpose. She’s set up a Facebook page for the church as a first step towards getting more attention.

Myanmar has had more than its share of troubles and upheaval over the last century. The country was occupied by the Japanese during World War Two, and suffered greater privation and damage to its infrastructure than almost anywhere else in the region.


Japanese Field Artillery on the march in Burma circa 1940

Many Armenians were among those who embarked on the arduous wartime trek north through jungle and forest to the relative safety of British India – a memorial in the church lists the 13 members of one Armenian family who died during the journey.

Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, several months after India and Pakistan. Within a few years, it had a military-backed government which made little effort to develop commercial links beyond the country’s borders. The army’s violent suppression in 1988 of the democracy movement further heightened the country’s international isolation.

Over the past few years, Myanmar has been edging towards greater democracy, and has started to open its doors more widely to foreign business and investment. What was one of Asia’s most international cities is again starting to develop a more global aspect.

And a church which has its roots in an earlier era of international commerce may find fresh succour from a new bout of globalisation.


Armenian church gate, Yangon


Edited by Yervant1, 28 August 2014 - 08:45 AM.

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#2 onjig



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Posted 29 August 2014 - 10:54 AM

Very interesting, and sad.

#3 Arpa



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Posted 29 August 2014 - 12:15 PM

ԱղթաՄԱՅՐԻց հեռացանք:
Միայն Միանմար մնաց?
We need to speak about Zangenzur, not Zululand.
Միայն թէՄայրըս Վիշտըս չիմանա

Իմ այրող վշտից սիրտըս է մաշվել,
Կյանքըս է մաշվել, էլ ի՞նչս մնաց.
Լամ ու արցունքըս աղի-ծով դառնա,
Միայն թե մայրըս վիշտըս չիմանա:


#4 Yervant1


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Posted 29 August 2014 - 02:26 PM

Are you suggesting that we need to forget about the past? Because there is not enough talk about present which is wrong, should we forget all the past adventures and accomplishments as well. In order to make a point one doesn't need to see everything in a negative manner. But than again Arpa will be Arpa no hope. :(

#5 Arpa



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Posted 29 August 2014 - 04:21 PM

Are you suggesting that we need to forget about the past? Because there is not enough talk about present which is wrong, should we forget all the past adventures and accomplishments as well. In order to make a point one doesn't need to see everything in a negative manner. But than again Arpa will be Arpa no hope. :(

Yes, I am an skeptic and a cynical SOB.
No, I am not saying to forget the past, but everything should be in its own perspective. If I remember my elementary psychology class, one of the concepts is Sublimation, which can be best pictured by that vulgar cliche- Those who cannot, are afraid to beat the donkey hit the saddle instead. You may have noticed that I have not responded to items about churches in Bangladesh, Shanghai etc. When I did it was, as you put it, in a skeptic and cynical mode. I dont regret it. The only few times I responded in a positive way was when Liz Chater (where is she?)wrote about the Armenians in India.
No, I am not saying to forget the past, but let us look at the present and the future. We keep talking about the empty skeletons of ruined churches in the west and the east when at this rate of emigration the Churches in Armenia will be mere empty ruined skeletons in a very short time.
I have been in Yerevan 5 times, and every time I have cried at the sight of those magnificent structures, which shortly will become a pile of dust just like those in Ani.
Yes please, let us beat the saddle , talk about the skeletal ruins of so called churches in Myanmar, let us send those in Yerevan dollars so they can buy airline tickets and watch they can pack up their bags and move to Bangladesh.

#6 Yervant1


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Posted 29 August 2014 - 04:47 PM

You are saying things for the sake of saying just to oppose, one has nothing to do with the other. You can start a new topic about how Armenians are leaving Armenia for all your hearts desire, but wait a second you have already interjected this issue in every other topic which is very important I might say but there is no need for mixing with other topics.

#7 Yervant1


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Posted 02 October 2014 - 10:01 AM


The Irrawaddy News Magazine, Burma (Myanmar)
Oct 1 2014


RANGOON -- Pigeons flutter on the sidewalk outside, and well-wishers
lean against a wall with corn kernels to feed them, but for the most
part, this colonial-era church with a small white bell tower remains
quiet on weekdays, tucked away in a leafy compound of downtown Rangoon.

It is only once every week, on Sunday at 10 am, that the bell tolls
loudly to herald the start of a morning service, bringing the sleepy
brick building to life.

Welcome to the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John the Baptist,
the oldest Christian place of worship in town.

Built in 1862 and consecrated one year later, the church at the corner
of Merchant and Bo Aung Kyaw streets was erected by the Armenian
community that was residing in Rangoon at the time.

Their descendants arrived in the 17th century from Iran, where they
had settled after fleeing the Ottoman Empire. From there, they followed
trade routes to Burma by way of British India. In 1881, a census by the
colonial administration revealed that there were 466 Armenians living
in the country, and a decade later that number had grown to 1,295.

But today the church at the corner of the two busy streets is
struggling to keep its congregation going, with a small number of
worshippers turning up each week. Of these, few trace their roots
back to the community that founded the building 152 years ago. Indeed,
the last full Armenian in Rangoon died last year.

Only 18 people attended a recent Sunday service, and most of the 14
pews inside the prayer hall were left vacant.

"Me and my dad are the only regular worshippers at the church,"
Rachel Minus, who is part Armenian, told The Irrawaddy afterward,
adding that her relatives joined sometimes.

Her father, Richard Minus, 60, said he was saddened by the low weekly
turnout. "The larger the congregation we have, the better it is for
the church," he said.

When he was a child, the church was packed with Armenian worshippers
who came to listen to Armenian priests, and after evening prayers on
Christmas the group would head over to the nearby Strand Hotel for
a holiday feast.

The current pastor, Rev. John Felix, confirmed that his current
congregation was small, but added that the church still played an
important role. "It is the only Armenian church in Burma that is
still functional," he told The Irrawaddy.

Now, however, the church is set to receive a high-level visitor who
could help it reestablish ties with the community to which it belongs.

On Tuesday, Catholicos Karekin II, the supreme patriarch of the
Armenian Apostolic Church--one of the most ancient Christian
communities in the world--arrived in Burma for the first time.

"One of the primary objectives of His Holiness's six-day visit to the
Far East is to help strengthen the Armenian Church and maintain the
Armenian heritage and legacy in Myanmar [Burma], to [make] Armenians
aware of Myanmar and its people, and vice versa," the Armenian leader's
delegation said in a statement.

Coming Together

According to Burmese historian Thant Myint-U, the Armenians were once
a vital part of the Burmese political and business landscape.

"Famous Armenians served as government ministers under the Konbaung
kings and were prominent businessmen up through the 1950s," he told
The Irrawaddy.

But most Armenians fled the country during World War II, and afterward
many did not return. Even more left for good in 1962, when the
military regime led by former dictator Gen. Ne Win seized power,
kicked out foreigners and confiscated their businesses.

Despite pressure from the government, some stayed behind. Rachel's
grandfather, Alfred Simon Minus, was among them.

"I have no idea how many Armenian descendants remained in Rangoon,
not to mention the whole country," she said, adding that she hoped
Karekin II's visit would bring Armenian descendants together. "I think
they will come to pay homage to the patriarch. If so, at least we'll
know how many Armenians are still here."

During the patriarch's visit, the church in Rangoon will hold a
ceremony to install a commemorative blue plaque as part of larger
project by the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) to highlight colonial
architecture. Despite its age, the church has never been officially
recognized as a heritage site, though it is one of the most functional
colonial-era buildings in the city.

Since August, the YHT, a heritage preservation NGO, has installed
plaques outside sites of architectural and historical significance in
Rangoon, with descriptions in Burmese and English languages to help the
Burmese people and visitors appreciate the city's colorful history. The
Armenian church will be the third building to receive a plaque.

"We wanted to install the plaque while he was here," Thant Myint-U,
who founded the YHT, said of Karekin II's visit. If preserved, he
added, the church could become not only a tourist destination, but
also a place to remember the Armenian contribution to Burmese history.

Richard Minus hopes the patriarch's visit will help the church in
the long run.

"I will ask him to send us an Armenian priest," he said.

His daughter Rachel says she has never attended a service with an
Armenian priest, and that the service this Saturday, to be led by
the patriarch, will be among the most memorable events of her life.

"I am very excited," the 34-year-old said.

"Even though I'm part Armenian, I am never reluctant to reveal that
I'm of Armenian descendent. The patriarch's visit means a lot, not
only to me, but for the church and our future generation."

See photos at

#8 Yervant1


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Posted 02 October 2014 - 10:03 AM


Global Post
Oct 1 2014

The head of the Armenian Apostolic Church Karekin II called for all
Myanmar's religions to "come together as brothers" Wednesday as he
attended a ceremony to mark the heritage of Yangon's oldest church.

In the packed Apostolic Church of St John the Baptist in Yangon,
Karekin II said he wanted to promote the legacy of the dwindling
Armenian community in the Buddhist-majority nation.

"We have come here not only to see the preservation of this church but
(also) the spiritual welfare of our children here," he told dozens
of reporters and dignitaries through an interpreter at an event to
bestow a heritage "Blue Plaque" on the 19th century building.

He also added his hopes for a "beautiful life in peace" for people
in the country, which has seen several waves of violence targeting
local Muslims since the end of junta rule in 2011.

"We pray that in this country, where there are many religions and
faiths, they come together as brothers for the well-being of this
country," he said.

Myanmar's first Armenians arrived in the 1600s and greater numbers
came as traders in the 1800s, according to the Yangon church's Father
John Hla Win Felix.

"They were very successful at business," he told AFP, adding than
some Armenians "even served as advisers in Mandalay palace".

The church itself was consecrated in 1863, when hundreds of Armenians
lived in Yangon.

But the community shrank dramatically after the two world wars and
the violent upheaval of Myanmar's military rule which began in 1962,
when many were considered foreign and forced to leave.

Now there are only about 20 Armenian families in the country, according
to Father John Hla Win Felix, and only two families regularly attend
the Yangon church.

He welcomed the visit of Karekin II, who arrived Tuesday and is due
to hold a service at the church on Sunday.

"(He came) not to spread our religion, but in order for Armenians
here to be united again," he told AFP.


#9 Yervant1


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Posted 08 October 2014 - 09:10 AM


15:18, 07 Oct 2014

An article published by the BBC refers to the visit of His Holiness
Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians to
Myanmar, also known as Burma.

To mark the visit of the head of the Armenian Church the garden was
tidied, the fence re-painted, and one of Yangon's new heritage plaques
erected outside.

It proudly states that at the age of 152, St John the Baptist's is
"Yangon's oldest surviving church".

For most of those years Yerevan has had very little to do with this
small remote outpost.

Now that's changing and Catholicos Karekin II came to Yangon to try to
resolve a dispute over the management of the church and its property.

A recent article reported on the dwindling number of Armenians in
Myanmar. According to the BBC, when the last full Armenian (both
parents) in Myanmar died six years ago, effective control had passed
into the hands of a man who had no connection with either Armenia or
the Orthodox tradition.

"Father" John Felix, as the sign in the street outside calls him,
had taken over the running of the church. A Burmese man of Indian
extraction, he claimed to be an ordained Anglican priest which
would, with the Armenians' permission, give him the right to perform
religious services.

Felix comes across as a very pleasant, humble man, but unfortunately
the Anglican Church says he has never been a priest.

"He's not recognized by our Church any more, once he was a deacon,"
the Archbishop of Myanmar Stephen Than Myint Oo said.

The archbishop makes a veiled reference to inappropriate behaviour and
says "Felix does not have the authority to perform religious services."

Felix says the allegations are just "rumours", that he has the correct
documentation and that efforts are being made to undermine him.

He was called to a meeting with the Catholicos Karekin II, who
told that he could no longer work in the church and asked to return
the keys.

Felix refused, and according to the Armenian Church is now effectively
a squatter on the historic site. A legal battle looks likely.

Nevertheless, the church doors opened on Saturday for the biggest
Armenian mass in Myanmar in decades. The altar was re-consecrated and
it was announced that an Armenian priest based in Calcutta would be
flying in every weekend to conduct services.

The Armenians are hoping that this rather painful trip will prove to
be a badly needed turning point for the community.



#10 Arpa



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Posted 08 October 2014 - 10:55 AM

Այսքան բարիք թէ մենք մսխենք** օտարին, Թող ողջ աշխարհ նախատինք կարդայ ՀԱՅԻՆ:
Hi Avetis Aharonian

Այսքան չարիք թէ մոռանան մեր որդիք, Թո՛ղ ողջ աշխարհ Հային կարդայ նախատինք

Միայնմարը վիշտըս չիմանայ:
How about we mind our own business and our own country?
See the ruined churches. Case in point , the Ruins of Zvartnots.
Those who dare not beat the eshek, they beat the saddle.
**Expend, spend. waste.
See ՄՍԽԵԼhere;
Burma;(Furkish), Any word ending in LA and MA are furkish as in Khashlama where the first syllable (Khash) is Armenian but the rest is not.
Burma Shave What the Catholicoi need.;***

***There is a very rude saying about the beard that I will not repeat here. OK. Here somewaht sanitized
If there were dignity to the beard (hair), it would not grow you know where

#11 Yervant1


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Posted 08 October 2014 - 02:50 PM

In order to show the hypocrisy at home, you are throwing the baby with the bathwater.  Are you saying that we should relinquish all the church properties in foreign lands? I yet to see something positive coming out of you, only negation.

#12 Yervant1


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Posted 11 October 2014 - 08:50 AM


First Things
Oct 10 2014

by Mark Movsesian

A follow-up to last month's post on the Armenian Orthodox church in
Myanmar: This summer, the BBC did a lovely story about a 150-year
old Armenian parish church in the city of Yangon, St. John the Baptist.

Hardly any parishioners remained, the BBC said, maybe ten people on
a good Sunday. Most of the congregation were not Armenians, either,
the Armenians having left Myanmar, with the British, decades before.

A small group of holdouts had continued to maintain the church,
however, led by a priest, Fr. John Felix. Fr. John was not Armenian
Orthodox, the story indicated, but Anglican. Nonetheless, the Armenian
Church had, in an ecumenical gesture, invited him to use St. John the
Baptist for the small number of faithful who remained, even though
he had a very limited knowledge of the Orthodox liturgy. (Most of
the parishioners had a very limited knowledge, too.) Apparently he
was starting to attract a following from among Christian believers
of many communions.

The BBC got its information straight from Fr. John. It turns out,
however, that he's not really "Father" John at all. The Anglican
archbishop says that John Felix was never ordained a priest,
only a deacon, and that, for unspecified reasons, the Anglican
Church no longer allows him to conduct religious services. How he
ensconced himself at St. John the Baptist is a mystery. He apparently
inserted himself a few years ago, after the last "full" member of the
congregation passed away. The Armenian Church hierarchy seems not to
have known about it. To be fair, they have many more pressing issues
with which to contend.

This summer's story drew a lot of attention. As I say, once the
Anglicans found out about John Felix, they spread the word he wasn't
one of theirs. The story got noticed in Armenia as well. Last week,
the Catholicos, or Patriarch, of the Armenian Church, Karekin II,
visited Yangon to reconsecrate the altar and conduct a proper liturgy;
a large crowd attended. The Catholicos also announced that henceforth
an Orthodox priest from Calcutta would fly in on weekends to conduct
liturgies at the church. As for John Felix, he's indicated he intends
to remain at the church and has refused to turn over the keys. The
BBC says legal action seems likely.

The BBC has posted a video interview with John Felix. He seems like
a nice enough man, and gamely tries to chant the Kyrie Eleison (in
Armenian, Der Voghormia) to show his bona fides. But, if the BBC
is to be believed, he's been deceiving everyone for years. He has
actually purported to conduct weddings and baptisms for unsuspecting
parishioners. Is he well-meaning but misguided, or an out-and-out
scoundrel? It's impossible to tell. What a very strange story.


#13 onjig



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Posted 11 November 2014 - 06:43 PM

That, the above, is a strange turn around!

Edited by onjig, 11 November 2014 - 06:47 PM.

#14 Yervant1


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Posted 13 January 2017 - 12:16 PM

Times of India
Jan 12 2017
Armenian church rots away due to neglect and calamities
Rachel Chitra | TNN | Jan 12, 2017, 11.42 PM IST
56506409.jpgThe Armenian Church, built in 1712, is a landmark in Chennai. The impact of cyclone Vardah has left its dent on the monument.  
304-year-old monument with burmese wood & antique bells awaits renovation

CHENNAI: The Armenian church, built in 1712, has weathered many a storm in the last 300 years, but cyclone Vardah managed to leave its mark on this landmark monument in Chennai.

With insufficient funds and lack of public interest, certain portions of the church such as its famous bell tower, housing 26-inch wide bells, overhead pews and wooden rafters- built with Burmese wood- need massive repair. These portions have been cordoned off for the general public as they are unsafe for use.

In the last few decades, services have become a rarity in the 304-year-old church with mass being served only on Christmas by a high priest, who comes down from the Armenian Apostolic Church in Kolkata.

"This is one of Chennai's most beautiful and unique institutions. When the cyclone hit, we lost a lot of ancient trees. The woodwork has weakened and the plaster is falling off in places," said Jude Johnson, caretaker of the Armenian church aka Church of Holy Virgin Mother Mary.

The church, which is opened for tourists, from 9 am to 2 pm every day, is nestled in the busy hub of Parrys. The Armenian Street- named after the church- has banks, corporate establishments, schools, shops, eateries, clothing retailers and a host of other establishments. Yet visitors to the church number few and far between.

"Once in a while, we get Armenian families, who have heard about the church. But weeks can go by without us seeing anyone. For them, the attraction is tracing their ancestors. The church's flagstones are inlaid with the graves of about 350 Armenians. For the Armenians, death was as much a part of life and they did not believe in erecting separate graveyards. The stone epitaphs also bear testament to the lives of Armenian merchants, being embedded with grapes, quills, grain, ships, etc," said Johnson. 

Chennai, which has always been a melting pot of cultures, has a richness of culture and value systems unrivalled by other cities. The city has its own rich blend of mosques, rubbing shoulders with temples and churches. But while the city's Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Christian, Marthoma churches, and those other denominations see a steady stream of church attendants and visitors- for instance, the St Mary's Church, St Thomas Basilica, Kurks and St George's Cathedral - the Armenian church is solitary in its inclusiveness.

And its relative solitude was reflected during the cyclone, when trees got uprooted and the plaster got dented. With the state authorities taking little to no interest in this heritage monument, it has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the Armenian Church in Kolkata- which also suffers from the same lack of church attendance and interest- to maintain the premises.

The magnificent belfry, which houses six large bells weighing more than 150kg, today is out of bounds for the commoner. The wooden stairwell, which leads up to its narrow upper climbs has become too weak for regular use. Uniquely cast, the first bell was hand cast in 1754, while the last two bells were added nearly a century later in 1837. Shipped in from London, the bells still bear the inscriptions "Thomas Mears, founder, London."

The church bells, each of which differs in size and were added decades and centuries apart, are rung only on Sundays by the caretaker at 9am.

For the rest of the week, the bells remain silent as does the church, which is a testament to the Armenians' skills as merchants of silk, spices and gems. The motifs of the church are predominately Mediterranean, with the altar and pews made of Burmese wood in mint condition.

The wooden rafters and the upper pews, however, have not escaped the ravages of time. The creaky wooden stairwell and the upper beams in the main church structure have become so weak that visitors are not allowed and even cleaning is done occasionally. The church's plaster is chipped in multiple places with the paint peeling off. "Given its solid structure and the fact that it has weathered centuries, a little restoration will go a long way to bringing it back to its former glory," Johnson added.

#15 Yervant1


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Posted 12 February 2019 - 12:13 PM

News.am, Armenia
Feb 11 2019
Old Myanmar church built by Armenian couple gets new lease of life
February 11, 2019 - 13:41 AMT

PanARMENIAN.Net - After almost three hundred years of neglect, the Portuguese church in Thanlyin, Myanmar is being brought back to life.

Construction on the church is believed to have begun in 1749, after Italian Catholic priest Paolo Nerini, a missionary from the Barnabite Order, obtained permission from King Binnya Dala, who reigned from 1747 to 1757, to build a church to replace a wooden one originally built by the Portuguese. Construction of the church was believed to have been funded by an Armenian, Nicolai de Agualar and Margarita, his wife, The Myanmar Times reports.

Inside the church, there is an inscription in Armenian regarding Agualar.

The Department of Archeology and National Museums first began work to preserve the remains of the church, with walls measuring 24 metres long, 10m wide and 12m high, two years ago, centuries after it had been damaged in wars in the 1750s and Typhoon Nargis in 2008.

In 2016, the Catholic Church of Myanmar instituted an effort led by Bishop John Saw Yaw Han to clear the grounds of the church and have it fenced off as the ruins had become frequented by drug addicts.

Last month, a ceremony to consecrate the land the church is located on was held inside the compound. Over 2000 Catholic devotees came together to celebrate mass in the remains of the church on January 12.

The Department of Archeology and National Museums is also conducting proper research and excavation work on the site to learn more about its history.



#16 Yervant1


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Posted 27 July 2019 - 09:06 AM

Frontier Myanmar
July 27 2019
The invisible bond: the Armenians of Myanmar
Yangon’s once-prominent Armenian community has dwindled over the decades, but its sense of history, heritage and identity remains strong.


YOU COULD count the congregation at the Armenian Church of St John the Baptist, Yangon’s oldest place of Christian worship, on one hand.

There was a young expatriate in the third pew, his head bowed in prayer, a little girl squirming in the front row, and her mother, wearing a lace veil and holding a hymnal. A choir of one, her clear, rich voice rose through the old beams and dusty portraits of Christ and the saints as the priest and lay vicar delivered the liturgy and homily and served Holy Communion. 

Later, waiting for a torrential downpour to ease, the entire assembly sat with me under an awning at the 150-year-old building on downtown’s Bo Aung Kyaw Street. I had come at an odd time, they explained. The service had been held on a Saturday because the Armenian Church in Kolkata, India, which sends one of its priests to Yangon every second week, could not spare anyone for that Sunday.

“Normally we have a few more,” said Ms Rachel Minas, the woman with the lovely singing voice. “But never more than ten, except maybe on special days like Easter.”  

Rachel and her father Richard, who had assisted the priest, were born and raised in Myanmar; the expat was Russian and the priest was born in the Republic of Armenia, a small former Soviet state.

Although the congregation of five hailed from three different countries, it shared an identity forged over centuries, one that continues to bind Yangon’s tiny community of Myanmar-Armenians, even if they don’t all show up for church services.

“We are like family,” said the priest, Father Artsrun Mikayelyan. “I know he is Armenian. She is Armenian. I am also Armenian ...Wherever you go in the world, you will always find at least one Armenian.”

Once a prominent community of merchants and diplomats, the number of Armenians in Myanmar has dwindled to a few hundred at most. Yet they continue to learn Armenian (if only for liturgy and hymns), uphold Armenian traditions (even if they celebrate Thingyan alongside Orthodox Christmas) and maintain their church (even if many have become Buddhists).


Father Artsrun Mikayelyan administers a service at St John the Baptist Church on June 29. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)


The Armenian diaspora is in many places linked to the mass exodus that followed the Armenian Genocide at the end of World War I. However, the Armenian presence in Myanmar dates to the 17th century, when Armenians from a population that had settled in what is now central Iran sailed to Southeast Asia to trade in silk.

Industrious, diplomatic and possessing a famous aptitude for languages, Armenians served as advisors in the royal court at Ava and later Mandalay. They were later translators and clerks for the British colonial government and high profile trading partners with the East India Company. At its peak, the community numbered at least 1,300 people living in India, Burma and Indonesia, shows census data collected by the BBC.

Rachel is well aware of the community’s rich history. As a schoolgirl she never failed to point out to her friends such icons of Armenian business acumen as the Strand Hotel, once owned by famous Armenian hoteliers the Sarkies brothers, and Balthazar’s Building on Bank Street, built in 1905 by the Armenian company Balthazar & Son. Her friends usually responded with blank stares.

“At school, people were confused because our faith was different and they didn’t know where Armenia was,” Rachel said. “It was a bit hard growing up here because most of the Burmese people considered us as foreigners, sometimes mistaking us as Indian or Muslim.”

Rachel doesn’t think of herself as a foreigner, but although she speaks Burmese and looks Myanmar, she doesn’t think of herself as a fully Myanmar person, either. She and her family exist in an obscure niche in the social landscape, one occupied by the community’s tiny church, a handful of other families, and the knowledge of an Armenian diaspora beyond Myanmar’s borders, scattered but strong.

Rachel’s distant cousin, Ms Sharman Minus, was born and raised in Canada, but her father grew up in colonial Rangoon. When his health began to decline, Sharman started researching some of the stories from his boyhood in Burma, and she soon found herself down a historical rabbit hole that would lead to previously unknown ancestors. 

“It was a shocker to learn I was part Burmese,” she said. 


The Armenian Church of St John the Baptist in central Yangon. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)


Sharman was especially fascinated by Makertich J. Mines (his surname is a variant of “Minus”), who served as a customs collector in Pegu, now Bago, during the reign of King Mindon from 1853 to 1878. Fluent in both common and royal Burmese, he became Mindon’s kalawun, a sort of minister for foreigners.  

When she first saw a photograph of Makertich, Sharman instantly noticed a resemblance. “I can remember looking at it and thinking, ‘That’s my dad.’”

When she finally visited Yangon in 2014, Sharman scoured the city, wandering through gardens and canvassing crumbling teak houses to discover where her great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins may have lived. She also saw the ruins of the 18th century “Portuguese” church in Thanlyin, which is believed to have been founded by an Armenian priest named Nicolai de Agualar. 

When she visited the Church of St John the Baptist in the downtown area, she discovered that one of the last refuges of the Armenian community was in dire straits. The church had fallen into disrepair and, worse, an unordained parishioner of Indian heritage, “Father” John Felix, was posing as its priest.

In the absence of an ordained priest, the man had slowly gained authority over services and the church property. Rachel and other parishioners were concerned he might try to acquire ownership of the land and the church, an accusation he vehemently denied.

Sharman joined Rachel and other Armenians in a campaign that saw the acting priest removed, control regained over the property and relations revived with the broader Armenian church. In October 2014, their efforts culminated in a visit by His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Catholicos of All Armenians. 

Speaking to the largest congregation St John’s had seen in decades, and a small throng of reporters and photographers, His Holiness reaffirmed the commitment of the Armenian Apostolic Church, saying: “We have come here to encourage Armenians and their children to preserve the tradition. We have come here not only to see the preservation of the church, but also to strengthen [Yangon’s] Armenian heritage,” The Irrawaddy reported at the time.

The following month, Sharman would write in her blog, Chasing Chinthes: “The church has already had two baptisms, a sure sign of regeneration.”


Father Artsrun Mikayelyan (top) and a view of the altar at the Armenian Church of St John the Baptist. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)


The regeneration has been gradual. The property dispute with the former would-be priest continues and has delayed renovation work, said Rachel, and church services rarely see more than a handful of attendees.

But despite the small congregation, the church continues to serve as a bastion of heritage and as a meeting place for all Yangon’s Armenians, regardless of whether they were born in Myanmar or abroad, such as Mr Vadim Zakharyan, the young expat at the Saturday service, and regardless of whether they are even Christian. 

“When I first came here, I stayed in this hotel nearby. I was just walking down this street and I see this tablet that said, ‘Armenian Church in Yangon.’ I was shocked,” Vadim said.

He said it was comforting to know there were Armenians in Yangon. He was born in Uzbekistan and raised in Russia, and yet, like Rachel, has always thought of himself as Armenian more than anything else. Even though they did not speak the same language, he felt a close bond with the Armenians of Myanmar.

“Growing up, even though people did not know where Armenia was, and didn’t know what I was, I was proud,” said Rachel.

For her, the true value of the Armenian community is not measured in the size of its church, or city landmarks built by Armenians, or the number of remaining Armenian families. It is the invisible bond that links Armenians wherever they are, be it Yangon, Russia, Canada or the homeland itself.






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