Thomas Cosmades



Apraham Hoja of Aintab


Chapter 6

Bible Restored – Prison Atmosphere Enlivened


On one of the many days we spent in this prison, I was invited to the office of the magistrate.  At the outset, he had mercilessly scourged some of us, emptying all sorts of profanity and foul language on us.  Now his arrogant manner had given way to a reasonable mien.  Amazingly, he talked with a magnanimous spirit, displaying some concern.  His attitude was like that of a father talking to his son.  He asked, “Are the other prisoners giving you trouble?”  I answered, “No, sir.”  Then he posed another question, “Is there any favor that I can do for you?”  It may be recalled that when we entered this prison this man had taken away our Bibles.  I was hungry and thirsty for the Word of God.  Without any hesitation, I said, “Sir, if it would please your honor, let me have my Bible.  I will be grateful to you.”  Immediately he responded, “Very well, my son.  You may go now and I will send your Bible right away.”  Shortly after I returned to my cell a policeman brought my Bible to me.  What a great favor this was!  What unspeakable joy filled my soul!  The Words of Life were with me once again.  Little wonder that the Apostle Paul shortly before his martyrdom wrote to Timothy, “My dearly beloved son, when you come, bring with you the books, but especially the parchments.”


As I mentioned before, we were among the worst kinds of criminals, offenders who had been sentenced to long jail terms. Human beings could not survive long in the conditions we were subjected to.  The cells were filled with filth; there was a terrible foul smell.  The place was infested with lice, fleas and bedbugs, all of which were having a heyday biting us and sucking our blood.  Not knowing the outcome of our case, day after day we were living in this hell on earth.  This may surprise the reader, but we were given no food.  One day, one of the brothers among us received food from his family.  He immediately shared it with the rest of us.  So we all got a little taste of home-cooked Armenian food.  For five months we were kept in these strict and deplorable conditions.  In faith we were anticipating our Lord’s intervention.  We believed that he would not delay in coming to our aid, rescuing us and taking vengeance on those who were treating us without any pity.  As we waited day after day, we finally learned that our case was being examined by the provincial superior court in Aleppo and that the outcome would soon be made known.  What else could we do, but to resort to the best practice, namely, fasting and prayer for three days?  We asked the Lord that his mercy may soon touch the hearts of the members of the superior court and bring our long-overdue liberation.  All twenty-seven of us joined with one heart in this earnest petition.  During this time, people who knew our plight were remembering us.  One of those who worked very fervently on our behalf was Dr. Shepard of the American hospital in Aintab.  He directly appealed to the American and British Counsels in Aleppo to use their influence in order to extend some assistance.


This noble effort was to no avail because our case had gone to Sultan Abdul Hamid II.  It is well known by all historians that he was a merciless and cruel emperor.  He hated everybody, especially the Armenians.  He had initiated the first Armenian genocide in the East in 1895.  When our case was brought to his attention, being told that we were all Armenians, his reaction was typical of his character:  “Do not let these prisoners go free.”  After three days, the news arrived that with imperial decree we were indicted and that we would be summoned to appear before the court for further hearing.  Alas! The development was altogether contrary to what we were anticipating by faith in our Lord.  We were all disappointed to the depth of our hearts, as this decree could be interpreted that we were all doomed to an indefinite time of uncertain waiting.  We were cast into a misery which grew day by day.  Our group consisted of men of different ages.  The four youngest and most vulnerable endured much reproach and denigration at the hands of the other prisoners.  We were men without food, without any opportunity to bathe or care for our hygienic needs. No hope of release was in sight.  We came to a point where our faith was being tested.  Sadness overtook all of us, as we knew well that we had committed no offense.  In the midst of all, we thanked God that his renewed assurance was uplifting us moment by moment.  We said to each other: “God must have a great purpose for our own good and the good of his testimony.”  Our faith rested firmly on the words of Romans 8:28, as our prison cell became a crucible to cleanse our hearts and test the genuiness of our faith. “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tries the hearts” (Proverbs 17:3).  


We were constantly discussing our case among ourselves.  One day the suggestion was put forward by one of our group that we should compose a joint letter to some of the leading citizens of Marash.  Immediately we started to write.  The gist of the letter was our request that they intercede on our behalf with the governor of the city.  We mentioned that our case was a different one; therefore a decision should be given to separate us twenty-seven prisoners from the rest of the common criminals and allow us to stay in a different place.  Our request was watered with much intercession and supplication.  God intervened and twenty-four hours after our application reached the governor’s hands, an affirmative decision was made!  We were all removed from the rest of the prisoners and shifted to a large room in the prison which was cleared out beforehand so that everybody in our group could be with each other. What a blessing!  That same evening all of us were together in this area.  Our hearts were filled with joy and thanksgiving to our Lord who had graciously delivered us, his sheep, from among wolves.  Our overwhelming joy nearly equaled what a word of release would have brought.  For five months we had been separated from each other.  Our heavenly father saw to it that once again we were in each other’s company.  All of us knelt and praised God with hymns of gratitude.  We felt like being fibers worked into a single cord.  We immediately started growing strong in one another’s fellowship and above all, having Jesus Christ in our midst.


This move was very providential because here we spent another six months.  I cannot refrain from recording some of the unforgettable experiences that we had in this God-provided place.  One day Brother Karekin and I were summoned to the city hall to meet the mayor.  We were in excited anticipation to learn the reason of his beckoning us.  The mayor ushered us into his private office and locked the door.  His countenance expressed his curiosity.  After the three of us had sat down together, he wanted to learn who we were and what our message was.  The Lord gave us a sense of humility, mingled with joy.  What an opportunity to testify of our faith in a living God and our having experienced repentance through our Savior Jesus Christ!  We spoke of the transforming power of the blessed Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives.  The man listened attentively to words which he was probably hearing for the first time in his life. He had a beard to which his hand repeatedly reached, stroking it gently again and again.  Looking at us sympathetically he spoke with restrained feeling:  “My sons, there has come to you (hidayati rahmani) a God-inspired desire to seek the Truth.  Don’t worry; the Lord is going to set you free.  If you encounter any trouble in the prison, let me know.”


Vartan Bilezikian continues to relate:  “I mentioned before that our cells were infested with bedbugs. Day and night, these were our chief tormentors.  Every corner of space was teeming with these tormenting pests.  But a miracle took place! These carnivorous blood-suckers became friendly toward us; they were all around like a herd of cattle in a wide pasture, but never came near us.  It was the God of Daniel who had constrained the hungry lions’ mouths who kept these merciless creatures from sucking our blood.  Before we were moved to the larger quarters the prisoners in the cells heard of our experience with the bedbugs.  It may sound strange, but it is true, and the prisoners started inquiring about it.  They came to learn that this indeed was the case.  This exciting news item spread among the prison officers.  They started remarking, “Bedbugs are powerless against the ’Roohjular’ (spiritual ones). For some reason, they don’t attack them.”  This event evoked plenty of discussion in the prison, arousing great curiosity.  The officers were so eager to get the details that they delved into detail about this unusual state of affairs.  When they were convinced that what they had heard was really true, they dropped the case in puzzlement. 


The mayor’s interrogation was thorough.  The result of it reached the governor; both he and the district attorney were satisfied that all of us were innocent young men and that the charges against us were unfounded.  However, this wasn’t going to change their minds.  The orders from headquarters were exact. The band of believers was to be destroyed.  No favors of any kind were to be granted.  However, our trust was in our sovereign God who had not forgotten or forsaken us until now. He answered our prayers in an unusual way.  Suddenly, both the governor and district attorney who were working hard against us were dismissed from their positions. 


About this time, Brother Hamparsum Kellejian had a vision which he related to us:  “I saw the Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Marash.  From his side through an opening there flowed black water, and he died a lamentable death, crying in great agony.”  A few days later we heard that a well-known churchman had attacked the Prelate, whose demeanor and conduct had been scandalous.  The Prelate started brooding over the serious charges brought against him by the leading churchman.  As a result, he suffered a stroke; strangely his side opened and he died an excruciating death. God’s verdict came to our minds: “…he who touches you touches the apple of his eye” (Zechariah 2:8b).  The unfortunate Prelate had been a person of great talents and abilities.  By profession he was an architect and he held a very high ecclesiastical position.  I regret to recall the conduct of Annas and Caiaphas who surrendered the apostolic band of believers to anti-Christian authorities. 


One of the notorious men in prison was Zamir Hoja.  He was a Muslim fanatic through and through, an avowed enemy of the Christian faith and the followers of Christ.  He fought mercilessly against our singing and praying.  In the prison he was the man who caused us the most trouble.  We all considered him an incarnation of Satan, a man bent on scheming evil and executing it.  Not only was he a determined enemy of the Christian faith and the believers, but he constantly instigated the prisoners against us.  This was his daily routine.  One day while he was carrying on one of his tirades, suddenly the Lord struck him.  His senses left him and demons entered his body.  Being governed by the evil spirits and unable to get rid of them, he started running in every direction, yelling menacing threats at the other prisoners.  One night he became so violent that the rest of the prisoners and even the guards found themselves in the midst of a great nightmare.  The prison police commanded him to shut up, but he paid no attention to them.  As they were dragging him from his cell, he was ranting and raving, totally out of control.  It was winter.  In the courtyard, there was a fountain and its water was half-frozen.  They grabbed him and threw him into the fountain.  Afterwards, they transferred him soaking wet to a dark isolation cell.  He was doomed to finish his days in that place.  From then on we never saw his face. Once again, our sovereign God manifested his justice and way of executing judgment.


Our most-appreciated involvement was singing hymns, praying and studying God’s word.  The practice was an essential part of our prison routine.  Amazingly, the prisoners who started memorizing the hymns we sang joined us.  Among the many heart-lifting songs that we sang was the one that became our favorite: 


                                                                Thou, my everlasting portion,

                                                                More than friend or life to me,

                                                                All along my pilgrim journey,

                                                                Savior, let me walk with thee.


In the prison there were both Turks and Arabs.  They liked this hymn so much that whenever we sang it, they joined in singing the refrain, “Close to Thee, Close to Thee…”  With joyful hearts we often heard the prisoners remark, “God sent you here to be a light to us in this dark prison at this awful period of our lives.  Your companionship and witness has affected us greatly.  May God’s blessing be upon you.”


Among the prisoners was a hoja (Muslim teacher-priest).  He was an honorable person from a town called Albistan.  Often he came to hear the Word of God and our testimony.  The Spirit of God worked marvelously in his heart.  Finally, he repented of his sins, confessed his need of Christ the Savior and testified to the saving grace of God.  “Now I am one of you, brothers,” he said.  No one noticing the wonderful transformation which had taken place in his heart and observing his changed countenance could doubt for a moment that the miracle of grace had been completed in this man’s life.  He was a truly born-again person, a child of God.  Whenever he met with us, his face radiated the joy of the testimony he was sharing with others.  Alas, one morning he disappeared.  We can only assume that because of his determined faith and testimony for Christ he died as a martyr in the hands of blind and fanatic Muslims.  We expect to meet him among the redeemed in glory, in fact among the company of the martyrs mentioned so distinctly in the book of Revelation. 


I made reference to the fact that our meager supply of food came occasionally from the prisoners’ families.  Every recipient was mindful to share the food brought to him with the others.  It will be well understood that all twenty-seven in the group had to go hungry often.  We prayed and came to the decision that we should appeal to the authorities to recognize for us the same rights enjoyed by the other prisoners.  Again, providentially, our request was granted and they decided to give each of us a loaf of black bread daily.  We were blessed by having a piece of cloth which we spread on the floor, using it as a table cloth. We placed the bread on it, to eat along with any food provided through the kindness of the various families.  With hymns of praise and thanksgiving we asked the Lord to bless the food, ‘having all things in common’, as it is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles.  Our bountiful heavenly Father always provided some food for us.  It was obvious to all that we had a great love for each other.  Nobody was selfish; everybody was eager to share from what he had received. 


This sacrificial spirit made a deep impression on the other inmates and officials who observed our practice of sharing.  At times the spirit of prayer would come on us and one after the other would lift his voice in rather long supplications.  Such a session would last between three and four hours.  We forgot the table set before us.  The food and bread remained untouched.  Again, this had a great impact on the personnel and on the other prisoners.  They started wondering why we would sit around the table spread with food and wait so long before we began eating.  Our putting spiritual nourishment before the physical, in this way displaying our self-discipline, was entirely new to everyone around us.  This led them to make their way to the guards to complain: “These ‘Roohjular’ (spiritual ones) don’t eat their meals; they simply sit around the table and move their lips.  One of the prison staff who heard this complaint was known as ‘kel chavoush’ (bald-headed orderly).  He was a ruffian.  One day he angrily came in holding a club and a flashing sword.  He shouted intimidatingly, “Ey, why don’t you eat your food?  Are you all crazy?  Have you lost your minds?”  After throwing these insults he attacked us.  He shouted, “I will crush your heads with this club!”  Our soft-spoken answer to him was, “We beg your pardon, sir, we are not crazy or off balance.  We are at prayer, worshiping and praising our God.”  When kel chavoush heard our remark, with the words, ‘prayer’ and ‘Allah’ he was silenced.  His furious manner was transformed: “Forgive me, my sons; I cannot threaten you any more.”  Would to God that more people had such regard for prayer and deep reverence for the name of Allah as this intimidating Muslim displayed on that day! The words ‘Allah’ and ‘prayer’ disarmed him.  This was a clear example of how God could take the wind out of the sails of his enemies in times of immense insecurity and reckless threats, and calm them down.