Call it a turf war for the souls of the Armenian people.
In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that struck the former Soviet republic in 1988, Protestant churches have rushed in to help _ but with more than blankets and food. They've also moved in with Bibles, preachers and other high-powered tools of the evangelistic trade, challenging the near monopoly of the ancient Armenian Church.
Now those aggressive tactics are creating a "division" between Armenians loyal to the nearly 1,700-year-old Armenian Church and those who've converted to Protestantism, an official of the Armenian Church in America complained in an interview last week.
"I appreciate their missionary spirit," Bishop Khajag Barsamian, primate of the New York-based Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, said of the Protestant proselytizers. "But instead of coming to Armenia, go to Azerbaijan, which is a Moslem country, and convert them."
Barsamian, 40, is the top-ranking authority of the Armenian Church in America in all but two states _ California and Arizona. There are about a million Armenians in the United States and Canada, the church says.
Barsamian was in St. Petersburg to visit St. Hagop Armenian Church, one of several stops on a tour of Armenian communities in Florida. He left Tuesday for Armenia, where he is helping to coordinate delivery of U.S. aid to the country.
Barsamian's comments underscore the rising religious tension throughout the former Soviet bloc. With the opening of religious liberty, Protestant groups have stepped up evangelistic efforts, challenging such old-line institutions as the Russian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church and the Catholic Church in Lithuania and Ukraine.
Among the groups Barsamian singled out: Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Barsamian said that Protestant groups have been "very helpful" in the aftermath of the earthquake and that Armenians are thankful for the aid. But, he added, the religious groups are using the earthquake as an "opportunity to proselytize Armenians."
" . . . Most of the Armenians did not have the opportunity to learn about their faith, about their religion (under communism), and now there is an opportunity to teach them, and the Armenian Church in Armenia is working very hard to reach (them)," he said.
But the Armenian Church is "not really 100 percent ready to reach everybody" at this point, he said. The church is still trying to train clergy, produce more religious literature and take other steps to address the pent-up spiritual needs of the people.
"What we are saying is that we are grateful that you (Protestants) are helping us, but don't go and proselytize them. If you want really to help these Armenians, work with the official church of Armenia. . . . Unfortunately, they are not doing that. And we have told them on several occasions."
Barsamian could not say how many Armenians have switched churches, though he claimed it was a small percentage. At several points in the interview he downplayed the potential effects of the Protestant activity. It is "not something very dangerous" to the Armenian Church, he said, because Armenians "know that the Armenian Church has been the life of the Armenian people."
Still, Barsamian said he was "disturbed" by the Protestant competition.
"They go, for example, to some villages, (and) they have printed Bibles in Armenian. These people (villagers) don't know. They think these people (Protestants) are coming from the Armenian Church. They even use some Armenian spiritual songs, and they preach (to) them and they convert them. They do it in such a way that you know that they are coming to "save' them."
He added, "Armenia has been a Christian country for 1,700 years. Armenia is the first country that accepted Christianity as the religion of the country." The Protestant activity, he argued, "creates division between people.
" . . . If you are in a village, it is so good (that) all the people come together and they worship together. But when you have two or three churches in a small village, you create division and people become even hostile to each other, saying he or she is from this denomination or he's (from) another."
The presence of competing churches also leads to social problems, Barsamian argued, because of the Armenian Church's traditional role as the seat of national culture and ethnic identity.
"When you go to a small town and you see people are divided, it's not a comfortable situation," he said. "Because then these people, not only religiously but socially, will look toward each other as so-called enemies."
Despite the strong sentiment, Barsamian spoke calmly as he sat in his hotel suite, fresh from a picture-snapping session with a group of St. Hagop parishioners.
Barsamian described the Armenian Church as "very ecumenical, very open toward other . . . faiths," and he praised the World Council and National Council of Churches for providing aid through the Armenian Church _ as he would like.
He even conceded that some good may come of the Protestant evangelical work. " . . . If you feel a danger you try to organize yourself even better," he said, citing "Christian education" as a potential beneficiary of the Protestant push.
But Barsamian was unyielding on his basic point _ that Protestant groups ought to cool their evangelical zeal on the Armenian Church's home territory, and that western churches helping out in the country should work through the local clergy.
"Even if they are sending people to Armenia, then these people can work with the local church hierarchy or the priests, helping them or perhaps showing them the new methods (rather than) creating division," Barsamian said.
Barsamian's wishes are unlikely to come true. With communism defeated, western religious groups view the old communist empire as a missionary mother lode, and they are mining it aggressively.
"What we see now is a wide-open avenue," the Rev. Mike Evans, church ministries manager with the Illinois-based Slavic Gospel Association, said by telephone this week.
He described his group as a "non-denominational evangelical Protestant mission" active in the former Soviet Union since 1934.
Evans dismissed the notion that Protestant evangelicals are causing division and ought to be working only through the old-line churches.
"From our perspective, we wouldn't consider it necessarily a valid point," he said.
"There is a very strong Protestant church in the former Soviet Union. . . . Our primary aim (is to assist it), and we don't hold to the position that the only legitimate church in Russia is the Russian Orthodox Church" or other national churches in the region.
Evans said his group has limited activity in Armenia. Its primary focus is the Russian Republic, Ukraine and Byelorussia, he said.
Still, for years before the earthquake, the group sent small amounts of materials to Armenia from its German office, Evans said.
After the quake, "they opened the doors wide open," Evans said of the Armenians. The Slavic Gospel Association sent truckloads of relief supplies, he said, and the Armenians also "allowed us to bring in Bibles and Christian books. We always worked in the open. We work by permit. We declared exactly what was on the truck."
Acknowledging the religious tensions in the old Soviet region, Evans said, "It (Protestant activity) shouldn't be a divisive thing, but I understand it is in the former Soviet Union just as it is in America. When people hold to a specific belief that really at its roots should be unifying, it can be divisive, and that's more an expression of our humanity than what is taught."
Barsamian takes a different tack.
"There is no reason for Armenia to accept other denominations because there is an Armenian Church, and the church has been (in existence) for many centuries.
"So why," Barsamian said, "should we have other denominations?"
Slavic ministry official to speak
The Rev. Mike Evans, church ministries manager with the Illinois-based Slavic Gospel Association, will speak Sunday at the 8:30 and 11 a.m. services of Hyde Park Presbyterian Church, 1309 Swann Ave., Tampa.
Working with the Slavic Gospel Association, Hyde Park Presbyterian is attempting to raise $9,000 to adopt a "sister" church in Vladimir, Russia, and provide medical supplies to Russian Christians.