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.
“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,” Andrew Whitehead writes in an article published by the BBC.
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.
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 traveled 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.