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Written by Stan Ingersol
From his column Past to Present

The Nazarene presence in the Middle East will soon hit the century mark. Our story there began in the 1920s and involves missionaries from the Eastern Mediterranean. Milham Abraham Thahabiyah was a Syrian. Samuel Krikorian was a native of Turkey. Both encountered the Church of the Nazarene after immigrating to America, but would later serve in neighboring countries as missionaries.

Milham Thahabiyah

Milham Thahabiyah

Thahabiyah was born in 1893 in Bloudan, a village 25 miles north of Damascus. His parents had Greek Orthodox backgrounds but converted to Roman Catholicism. He and his father immigrated to America around 1911, so that Milham could avoid being drafted into the Turkish army. At that time, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire.

In America, young Thahabiyah gravitated to Protestantism, attended various churches, and finally committed to the Church of the Nazarene. He planted a church in Montgomery, Mich., before entering Olivet Nazarene College to prepare more thoroughly for the ministry. He was a student pastor in his college years and applied for missionary service prior to graduating in 1920. General Superintendent R. T. Williams ordained him that summer, after which the Department of Foreign Missions accepted and assigned him to Syria. By Christmas, he was in his hometown of Bloudan, where his ministry began in early 1921.

The disciples he gathered were mostly siblings and other family members. They also included a young woman whom he married. A primary school he opened with 75 Arab students in 1922 soon had 200 students.

The congregation was organized in 1925 with 20 charter members. The actual “Nazarene community” was nearly five times that number. In the Middle East there was a slow, deliberate process of catechism before church membership. Protestants faced opposition, though not from Muslims so much as from the Greek Orthodox. Thahabiyah taught doctrine and ethics to prospective members, but he also made sure they had the grit to endure criticism and the social disadvantages they might incur from joining a Protestant church.

Protestants faced opposition, though not from Muslims so much as from the Greek Orthodox.

While pastoring in Bloudan, Thahabiyah also preached at Zebdani and across the border in Zahlé, Lebanon. In 1937, the Thahabiyahs began working in Damascus and moved there in 1938, finding a house in the city’s Christian quarter. In 1946, Syria’s new Arab government granted permission to open a school. Three years later, it was running 150.

By then, Thahabiyah had been joined by missionary Don DePasquale from the United States, and Rev. Nerses Sarian, who led a congregation of Armenian expatriates into the Church of the Nazarene.

Music was an important element in Thahabiyah’s life and ministry. He translated the Manual and many religious songs into Arabic and composed gospel music in his native language. He retired in 1955, and DePasquale became leader of the Syria-Lebanon field. Thahabiyah died in Bloudan in 1969.

Samuel and Hranoush Krikorian
with their children in the 1930s

Samuel Krikorian

Samuel Krikorian’s career paralleled Thahabiyah’s in some respects, but it also represented another dimension of Nazarene life in the 20th century Middle East.

His grandfather, Krikore Harootunion, was a Protestant pastor in Turkey. Samuel’s Aunt Rebecca traveled extensively in Europe and America before settling in Pasadena, Calif. She brought Samuel to the United States for his education, and he attended Messiah College (Grantham, Pa.) for a year. In 1914 he transferred to Pasadena College (now Point Loma Nazarene University). He graduated in 1917 and was ordained by H. F. Reynolds in Portland, Ore., in 1918.

A fresh persecution of Turkey’s Armenian minority began with World War I and prevented Krikorian from ever returning home. Massacres of Armenians became common in Turkey, and a great diaspora out of Turkey began. Some reached Europe and North America; others settled in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine.

Many members of the Krikorian family joined this dispersion. Some moved to America, others to Syria. Samuel’s grandfather and an uncle remained in Turkey with their Protestant congregations.

Samuel devoted a year as a lecturer and organizer in the Rocky Mountain states on behalf of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief. He also applied for missionary status and was sent to Palestine in 1921. Krikorian’s ministry there began in Jerusalem’s growing Armenian quarter, where he formed his first mission. In 1924, he married Hranoush Yardumian, a school teacher at the Near East Orphanage in Beirut, Lebanon. She was another Armenian émigré who fled to Lebanon after the martyrdom of her father, a Turkish-Armenian clergyman.

One month after she arrived in Jerusalem, a Nazarene congregation was formally organized. In 1926, a school was started with 60 pupils. Its graduates eventually included Berge Najarian, born in Egypt, who later returned to the Holy Land as a Nazarene missionary, and Krikorian’s brother, Puzant, who would became a hospital administrator and later organize Nazarene work in Lebanon.

The outreach to children had positive effects. Sunday school attendance also climbed, first to 100, then to 200. The congregation developed a strong Young People’s Society. Meanwhile, Hranoush organized the women to work among the city’s poor every Wednesday. Besides religious work, the women ministered to the sick and needy.

Over the years, Krikorian had help from others. These included Rev. Alvin Kauffman, who was superintendent of the field for 17 years, and Rev. Moses Hagopian, who worked in Haifa and other coastal cities. Krikorian became superintendent when the Kauffmans returned to the United States, a position he retained until he retired.

The Arab-Israeli war in 1948 scattered many of the Nazarene flock—Armenians and Arabs alike—to neighboring countries. At the time, the Krikorians were in the U.S. taking their very first furlough. They quickly returned to the Middle East where they decided to move to Amman, the capitol of Jordan. There they readily found enough Nazarenes to establish a new congregation.

They remained in the Middle East until 1956, when they returned to America on their second furlough. They retired 18 months later, settling in Pasadena. Samuel pastored a nearby church for many years before his death in 1969.

Stan Ingersol is manager of archives for the Church of the Nazarene.

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