Photo from the BBC
From the BBC’s News Magazine, here’s a lovely essay, “The Last Armenians of Myanmar,” about a small Armenian parish church, St. John the Baptist, in the capital city of Yangon. The Armenian community built the church in 1862, when the country was still known as Burma, and the city as Rangoon.The Armenians had come to Rangoon in the 18th century from Iran, by way of British India, following the trade routes.They established close ties to the Burmese monarchy, which donated the land for the church in the center of the city.
As its title suggests, the essay has a wistful, elegiac tone. Hardly any Armenians remain in Myanmar today– most departed for Australia after World War II – and the parish gets only a handful of worshipers on Sundays. But the situation is not altogether grim. Faithful parishioners continue to maintain the church lovingly– photos of the interior make it look Victorian and vaguely Episcopalian – and the liturgy is said every Sunday by Fr. John Felix, a South Indian convert from Anglicanism. The choir continues to sing the hymns in classical Armenian.
There is hope that two things will work to preserve the building. First, as Myanmar opens to the world, international tourism is increasing. As one of the the city’s principal historic landmarks, the church should benefit. Second, the church has become the focal point for the small Orthodox community in Yangon, not just Armenians:
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 worshiper here, Ramona Tarta, is Romanian, a globetrotting business woman, publisher and events organizer 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.
There’s a lesson here. Many of these Orthodox Churches have been out of communion for thousands of years. Formally, they are not supposed to worship together. But at the ends of the earth, and surrounded by people for whom these sectarian differences mean nothing, Christians somehow manage to cooperate. A hopeful example of practical ecumenism that Christians everywhere should keep in mind.