Thomas Cosmades



Apraham Hoja of Aintab


Chapter 4

Our Three Imprisonments


The year is 1906.  Apraham Hoja is in Aintab.  He sends an important letter to the writer, Vartan Bilezikian, and Hamparsum Kellejian.  After they read it, Brother Hamparsum keeps it in his possession.  Only a few days had passed when he was traveling with a few other brothers. Along the way they were stopped by a Turkish ‘zaptiye’, (a national gendarme).  He told them that he had been commissioned to carry out a search. Among Hamparsum’s belongings the gendarme discovered Apraham’s letter.  So he arrested Hamparsum on the spot and took him to government headquarters.  After the authorities interrogated him, they immediately threw him into prison without charge.  Immediately they came to Vartan and arrested him, too, putting him in the same prison.  The two brothers were held for several days with no explanation provided.  It was summertime.  The cramped quarters were full of prisoners from all walks of life.  The air was putrid and extremely hot, so much so that they could hardly breathe.  Hungry bedbugs were crawling everywhere.  There was no bed of course, nor any cot.  The prisoners were given no food.  Their condition was deplorable, but thankfully they were not separated from each other, so they could talk and pray together.  Finally, after several days, they were called to the government official for interrogation.


The first question directed their way was, “Who is this Apraham Hoja that wrote you the letter?  Why did he write it?  The two men spoke out in unison, “The writer is a man of God.”  The interrogator abruptly said, “Just answer my questions.” He paused, “The writer of the letter talks about a war deadlier than the Russo-Japanese War. It says, ‘Therefore, take the whole armor of God…take the sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:13, 17b).’  Who is the enemy in this war? And what are the armor of God and the sword of the Spirit?”   Again, the two men answered as one: “This is not a worldly warfare, sir; it is a spiritual battle against Satan and his kingdom.”  The magistrate seemed to accept this explanation although he didn’t really understand it.  He hastened to the next question: “Very well.  In this letter is written: ‘We received the items sent to us by the young men in Zeytun and request that you forward the items we are sending to them.’  Who are these young men of Zeytun, what did they send and what are you sending to them?”


Bilezikian continues: “Not knowing what items were sent or received between Apraham Hoja and the young men in Zeytun, we were at a loss to know what answer to give. It was an embarrassing situation because the magistrate thought that we were somehow entangled in this give-and-take of items.  The case developed into a sinister inquisition, way out of proportion to its original casualness.  Undoubtedly, this was because the name ‘Zeytun’ with its entire Armenian population had become the most dreaded and disliked Christian element throughout the Cilician region. Its inhabitants numbered sixteen thousand.  They were a sturdy people living in this rocky, mountainous district of Cilicia, who had engaged in no less than fifty separate battles against the best-trained Ottoman army units.  The Armenians had won every one of them.  Their desire was to preserve their faith, their Christian culture, their families and homes.  For generations the inhabitants, known as ‘Zeytunlis’, were a thorn in the flesh to the corrupt governmental system.  They were also suspect, subject to merciless investigations.


The two brothers had no clue whatever about ‘the items’, which were the main subject of the letter.  They answered the interrogator: “We know the man who wrote this letter.  He is a very godly person.  Without hesitation we should add that the young men referred to in the letter were spiritual followers and disciples of Jesus Christ.  Neither we, nor they, have any connection with civil or political organizations.”  The questioning continued and the two men were put back into prison where they were incarcerated for another nineteen days.  They were overwhelmed by a sense of uncertainty; but refused to be cast down.  They continuously looked up to God in prayer, committing their cause to him.  They fasted, prayed and studied the Word.  Witnessing to the other prisoners brought fresh inner strength and joy.  In answer to their prayers, their imprisonment came to an end. Suddenly and without any explanation, they were told that they were free to go back to their homes.  Their release brought great rejoicing and thanksgiving to the brothers and sisters in Christ. 


Second Imprisonment


The believers in Marash continued steadfastly with their witness for Christ while being engaged in their particular occupations.  Having experienced a mighty spiritual awakening, they always could look back with gratitude and anticipate an even greater revival in the future.  The whole city still remembered what had happened in the Christian community.  But, as could be expected, the enemy was at work stirring up trouble.  The nominal Christians who were mentioned before did not stop attacking the born-again believers.  Those touched by the Holy Spirit generally were not looked on with favor by the others.  This time the nominal Christians resorted to an unbelievable accusation.  They informed the authorities that a subversive society had been formed aiming to work against the government.  The officials immediately took measures against the men who were subject of the accusation.  In August 1907, they arrested approximately fifteen of the leaders, including Reverend Bilezikian, and threw them into prison.  This brought joy to the hearts of the believers, instead of sorrow.  They were encouraged that they were imprisoned ‘for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ’.  Their imprisonment became the cause for united rejoicing and thanksgiving.  Their witness to other prisoners intensified day by day, along with their fellowship in prayer and study of God’s word. 


Finally they were called in for closer examination.  The oft-repeated question was: “Are you a subversive society, or an organization aiming to stir up a revolution and topple the government?”  Such a manipulated investigation brought new joy to the brothers in prison, as it gave them opportunity to testify to the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  Each time they returned to their cells after another interrogation they broke forth into loud and lively singing of the great hymns of the Church.   During their seven days in jail they were living on a spiritual mountain-top, lifted above their miserable conditions.  Humanly speaking, their situation was intolerable.  The cells were hot and filthy, the air foul.  The prison was infested with bedbugs.  It was overcrowded with profane and lewd common criminals.  But the Holy Spirit brought constant peace and support to the hearts of these children of God. 


Naturally, all believers, men and women, were in earnest prayer for their fellow-Christians in prison.  This was reminiscent of the prayer of the believers in the apostolic church under persecution who prayed for Peter.  They had rejoiced with the opening of the prison gates through God’s intervention when Peter again was restored to their fellowship.  In a modern parallel, through God’s taking matters over when these men were released on the seventh day, they returned to their homes and work, bringing great rejoicing and thanksgiving to everybody.  Actually, there was gladness throughout the whole city when the news was heard of their release.  Immediately, all Christians gathered for a service of thanksgiving where they encouraged each other to continue in their faithful witness for Christ and in meeting together regularly.  Their new zeal exceeded what they had previously experienced. They were witnessing new conversions and increase in their numbers daily.





Third Imprisonment


The inspiring awakening picked up momentum. However, the enemy was preparing a new attack. The fear and suspicion of the authorities was fermenting.  They decided to throw the brothers in jail again, just three weeks after their release. But this small band of believers was not to be discouraged; their songs of praise were now shifted to their little cell. 


Paradoxically, they were again encountering opposition from the church leaders whose faith did not transcend a mere nominal belief.  There was much whispering among them and others who followed their line, against the born-again followers of Christ. A document signed by twelve of their people reached the government offices.  In it the believers were accused of being revolutionaries, members of a subversive society and harboring hostility against the authorities.  On the heels of this fabricated charge twenty-five of the leading believers were arrested by the police.  They were taken away from their families and places of work.  With an air of ridicule and reproach they were herded through the market places, like a gang of criminals.  No opportunity was given them to express their belief or to make a defense.


The writer continues with a story from his personal experience: “I was away at the summer cottage in our family vineyard.  So I was not in the company of those who had been imprisoned.  However, I learned that the police had arrested my brother Moses in my place.  They harshly interrogated him about me.  That evening I prayed fervently with complete confidence that my Lord’s will was going to be perfectly carried out and that we would be vindicated.  With this assurance, I retired for the night.  After being asleep for a couple hours, an amazing vision appeared before me which I have never forgotten.  The heavens were opened like a rose which makes its appearance in early summer.  My eyes were riveted on a dazzling scene.  I saw a vast multitude marching forward two-by-two.  These were celestial beings.  The scene was indescribably glorious.  It could not be put on paper by mere pen and ink. The crowd was robed in white, shining in the brightness of the noon-day sun.  One would suppose that they were clothed with glory and the atmosphere of the holy.   They walked from east to west.  Their eyes were glowing with joy and love.  Their movement was in perfect harmony and rhythm.  It was very hard for me to take my eyes off these delightful heavenly beings.  My concentration on the crowd intensified. A deep longing to know who they were gripped my heart.  As this orderly march came closer, I saw that their hair was long.  The leading pair was revealed as Jesus of Nazareth and the beloved disciple, John.  Behind were the rest of Christ’s apostles.


“As I feasted my eyes on this unspeakably arresting spectacle I concluded our Lord was despised on earth and rejected by ordinary men.  He suffered death at their hands.  This he did to verify the essence of the Gospel.  Now God the Father highly exalted him and robed him with honor and glory, riches and blessing.  Then and there, I heard the well-known words of Christ to the Church undergoing martyrdom: “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10b). The message of the vision brought a fresh reality to my soul.  Early in the morning I left the vineyard and made my way to the prison to join the brothers.  Shortly after my arrival, the police chief called all of us to his office.  There were more policemen and other officials in the room.  The chief of police immediately started assailing us in a vindictive outburst, using abusive and foul language.  Worse than this was the scourging and beating several of the brothers had to endure.  They were tortured mercilessly and some suffered bad injuries.  I was sitting in the corner of the room while this cruel drama was being enacted before my eyes.


All of a sudden, a holy boldness from the Lord came upon me.  I stood up and with hands uplifted as if in prayer, turned to the magistrate and addressed him: ‘Sir, your behavior and treatment has no place either in the law of God or man.  Allow me to ask you the reason for reproaching and maltreating innocent people with beatings and vulgar language, which we never use among ourselves.’  The reproof had its immediate effect.  The magistrate with his face turned to me, quieted down, went back to his seat, knowing that he had been chastised.  After a few minutes’ pause, he said, ‘Be gone now.  I will call you again tomorrow.’  We spent that night in prison, praising God and singing as Paul and Silas had done in the prison in Philippi.  The following day we were called to his office.  As we were being ushered in to the presence of this magistrate, next to him we saw the Bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the ministerial head of the Armenian Protestant churches and the priest of the Roman Catholic Church.  In their eyes we were regarded as heretics.  The first thing the magistrate did was to ask them: ‘Do you know these men?  Are they members of your congregations?’  Their answer in unison was, ‘We do not know these men.’  In a sudden fit of anger, the magistrate obviously irritated retorted: ‘I don’t know all the Turks by name, but I do know them to be Turks.  It is hard to imagine that you don’t know these men.  Since this is the assumption, I better release them so that they can empty your churches by their preaching.’  With this short speech he sent us back to our prison cells.  Had these formal religious leaders understood the Church of Jesus Christ as a divine foundation and taken their stand for us on that day, supporting us in our spiritual mission, we would have been spared the agony of prison life.  Instead, we were denied and betrayed by our very leaders into the hands of the enemies of the Cross and extended imprisonment. 

“”The place we were kept in custody was called ‘Nezaret’ in Turkish.  The district attorney who received our affidavit sent it to the higher court in Aleppo which was the capital of the vilayet (region) known by the same name.  Should the court in Aleppo declare us innocent we would undoubtedly be set free.  But if it decided to the contrary, we would have to face a prolonged court case.  It was now a matter of waiting for the verdict of the higher court. 


“In this atmosphere of expectation the twenty-seven followers of Christ enduring hardship for the sake of his testimony spent their days singing hymns, studying the Word, praying and praising him. He counted them worthy to be his witnesses during this whole ordeal.  One day the magistrate invited all the important officers in the courthouse to come together.  He said, ‘Come and listen to the inspiring singing of these Christian prisoners.’  Bilezikian relates the following development: “All of us prisoners were called to the courtyard of the prison where the officers already had taken their places.  The magistrate addressed us, ‘Haydi, askerlerim, (Come on, my soldiers), sing!’  This was a very happy occasion for us to be given the privilege of singing songs of praise to our Lord.  We were not restrained in our spirits, as the Israelite captives had been in Babylon when they plaintively moaned: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4).  That very moment the Holy Spirit gripped us with a sense of rejoicing and the wonderful opportunity that God had opened for us.  We sang: 


                                                                  O sinner, do not reject His call.

                                                                  Sin goes, but then comes its toll, its toll.

                                                                  Never forget Hell’s tormenting agony;

                                                                  Accept your God’s eternal love and mercy.


We sang the whole hymn while the officials were listening in awe.  The following day we were called to sing again.  This time, our audience was larger.  We sang:


                                                                  Blessed are the sons of God;

                                                                  They are bought with Christ’s own blood;

                                                                  They are ransomed from the grave;

                                                                  Life eternal they shall have.


                                                                  They are lights upon the earth,

                                                                  Children of a heavenly birth;

                                                                  One with God, with Jesus one,

                                                                  Glory is in them begun;

                                                                  With them numbered may we be,

                                                                  Here and in eternity.


When we had finished singing this hymn, they looked at us with wistful eyes as if hungry for more, and asked us to repeat the song ‘Wheat and Tares’ which we had sung the day before: 


                                                                  Comes the day of nations at the judgment bar;

                                                                  Separated sinners depart to the everlasting fire;

                                                                  No longer will tares co-mingle with the wheat;

                                                                  The King speaks, their destiny is complete.


After singing this and other hymns dear to our hearts we were returned to our cells.  One day, a prominent Turkish officer came to visit us.  His revelation amazed us: “Don’t be afraid, brothers.  I am one of you.  Jesus Christ is my Savior, too.”  Then he went on to explain how he had become a Christian.  “One day I was traveling to Aintab with a missionary whose name was Miss Rohner.  On the way, she told me about God’s word and challenged me to accept Jesus Christ. Then and there, I prayed the penitent’s prayer, ‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.’  My eyes were opened and I received Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and Lord.” As he was giving his testimony his face radiated with the beauty of Jesus Christ.



On another day, again all of us were joyfully singing:


                                                                 There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus,

                                                                       No, not one!  No, not one!

                                                                 None else could heal all our soul’s diseases,

                                                                        No, not one!  No, not one!


                                                                  Jesus knows all about our struggles,

                                                                         He will guide till the day is done;

                                                                  There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus,

                                                                         No, not one!  No, not one!


“One day the guard brought a young Turkish bandit, Faku, into our cell.  His domain was the mountains where he and his cohorts terrorized travelers.  He had been put on the ‘most wanted’ list of criminals.  Finding himself in such narrow confinement, he didn’t know what to do with himself.  He acted like a caged lion, continuously trying to open the door or window.  His urgent desire was to get back to the freedom of his kingdom. To add to his misery, he encountered a menace about which he knew nothing in the mountainsbedbugs!  These hungry creatures were having a feast on his entire body, around his eyes and even in his ears.  He was swollen beyond recognition.  He was weeping, but tried to forget his ordeal by singing folk songs that he knew by heart.  On one occasion he came and sat next to us.  We were reading God’s Word.  He listened intently.  He also gave attention to the prayers and singing.  One of our group asked him: ‘Faku, aren’t you a sinner?  Do you realize that you need salvation from sin?’  His prompt answer was, ‘Yes, I am a sinner.’  The conversation continued, ‘Would you like to be saved?’  His unhesitating reply was, ‘Yes, I would like to be saved.’  The believers directed him to a corner, where he knelt and openly prayed, confessing his sins and repenting before God with genuine sorrow.  He sincerely asked God to have mercy on his soul.  The signs of change immediately became apparent.  After a few hours of worshipful silence, he came back to us.  We asked him, ‘Faku, what did you do?’ ‘I encountered my sins,’ he replied.  ‘I threw them on a cat and they are all gone!’  His answer was in colloquial terminology.  Anything evil which someone seeks to get rid of is cast on a cat that runs away with it.  He used his opportunity to yield his life to the power of Jesus Christ as described in the Gospel.  The believers went on to assure Faku that Jesus Christ, God’s Son alone can remove sin and save the sinner, and cats have no part in it. 


“Among us,” Bilezikian says, “there was a brother affiliated with the Armenian Apostolic Church.  He had a beautiful voice and sang the liturgical hymns of his church.  We all listened to him with deep appreciation.  We called this brother, ‘Zechariah the priest’.  His real name was Stephan Merjenian.  Our stay in prison was not boring with all kinds of events taking place continually.  We waited, watched and prayed, not knowing what tomorrow would bring.”