Thomas Cosmades



Apraham Hoja of Aintab


Chapter 7

Apraham Hoja of Aintab Joins the Prisoners


In the eighth month of our imprisonment the hero of our story, Apraham Hoja of Aintab, along with Setrak Matosian, were arrested and added to our number.  The charge against Apraham Hoja was because of that letter which he had previously written.  As for Setrak Matosian, it wasn’t clear at all why he was arrested.  As soon as Apraham Hoja entered the prison gates he exclaimed in a humble and submissive spirit, “God’s will be done!”  This later joining of the two to the company brought both sadness and joy to all of us.  We were sad because this physically weak brother had to suffer with the more robust young people in our group.  On the other hand, we were joyful because a true man of God was brought in to be with us.  His was the appearance of a prophet.  God’s hour came upon us with the bringing in of this man.


Apraham Hoja in his impressive mien brought into the prison spiritual power and practical faith.  He stayed three months with us.  His life could be described in two words: ‘prayer-saturated’. A new stimulus was added to our studying of God’s word, our prayers and singing; now we could really wait in faith for the salvation of the Lord to manifest itself. 


In the compound there was a prisoner named Ahmed Amme.  He was such a hardened criminal that the sentence hanging over his head was one hundred and one years.  From what we heard, he had killed his wife and along with her, his mother- and father-in-law.  Against this horrible background, he gave the clear impression of being broken-hearted.  Gloom and apathy had taken over his whole personality.  He wanted to atone for his triple crime.  In accordance with the prescription of his religion he daily prayed toward Mecca after undergoing the ritual of ablution. Instead of praying the required routine of five times daily, he resolved to pray three times that many.  So he prayed five times a day to atone for the murder of his wife, and five times each for his mother- and father-in-law.  So in addition to those fifteen times of ritual prayer for those he murdered, he had to fulfill his personal duty of praying another five times daily.  It may sound very tedious to the reader, but this is what he went through every day.  This practice consumed most of his day.  He could only take two short breaks for meals.  Because in Islam religious rituals are extremely basic and uncompromisingly required by Allah, he subjected his body and soul to these protracted periods of ablution and prayer.


The prison authorities were disturbed at Ahmed’s continuous involvement in prayer.  One day they brought him to us.  He sat down in a worshipful manner and listened to the reading of God’s Word and our prayers.  One from our company asked him the question, “Ahmed Amme, don’t you wish to confess your sins, ask for forgiveness from Jesus Christ and be saved?”  His reply was quick, “My dear friends, which one of my countless sins should I confess?  If I start with my confessing of stealing chickens from here and there, this alone will require many days.”  On another day Apraham Hoja asked him, “Ahmed Amme, how did it happen that you killed three of your family members in one day?”  Ahmet replied, “Hoja efendi, I really don’t know.  All that I remember is that in a fit of anger an unknown force clicked in my brain and the next thing I knew was that I had killed all three of them.” 


With deep pity and agonizing sympathy Apraham Hoja exclaimed, “Oh, to what hot anger, uncontrolled wrath and surrender to sin the unregenerate heart is subject!”  One truth emerged out of this sad encounter with Ahmed.  He deeply regretted his crime and found the answer to his problem in undergoing the ritual of penance for his repulsive act.  We started telling him of God’s love, his readiness to save the sinner in the way he commands, and receive the person into his family.  God’s purpose is to save the worst sinner and make all things new in his life.  Something happened in Ahmed’s heart at that moment.  Ahmed saw the light of God’s redemption.  He believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and was delivered from sin.  The day we were released from prison was a very sad day for Ahmed Amme.  He was left behind, separated from his best friends on earth.  We rejoice that we will meet Ahmed in heaven as a wonderful trophy of our prison experience.


Apraham Hoja, God’s choice messenger, was a liberated sinner within the confines of the prison.  He was constantly involved in making his redemption story known to others.  He was on an apostolic mission.  He would go from cell to cell preaching Jesus Christ to Muslims with passion and fervent zeal.  His whole nature was radiant, as with a light from on high.  His heart yearned for his fellow-prisoners on whom he looked as priceless pearls.  All men in prison, most of whom were Muslims, looked upon Hoja as a prophet of God and listened reverently to him.  He didn’t give much thought to his own well-being.  He rather rejoiced in tribulation, showing his fellow-prisoners special kindness and consideration.  Prisoners started looking at him with reverence and wonder.  In the power of the Holy Spirit he entered every door which was open to him.  He was continuously repeating to prisoners, “I am among you as one who serves.”  He extended every possible service.  Soon his presence, his simplicity, his dynamic personality and evangelistic fervor became known to prisoners in the entire compound. 


This man who had discovered the riches of the new life in Christ was not oppressed by imprisonment.  Conversely, he always sang joyful songs in genuine communion with his Redeemer in heaven.  Indeed, he was a free man, a source of encouragement and constant inspiration to his suffering brothers.  One would think he was a storehouse of consolation toward each and every person around him.  He was constantly striving to win souls for the Savior.  Just as the Apostle Peter was miraculously delivered from prison, Apraham Hoja gloriously escaped a prison sentence of one hundred and one years when he denounced the prophet of Islam as a false prophet.  He wholeheartedly believed that Peter’s deliverer would perform another amazing miracle on behalf of us all and rescue us from this awful ordeal of imprisonment in Kanlı Mahpushane. 


We all felt sad that there was no place to have our meetings.  The thought came to one of our group to erect a small tent in the courtyard of the prison from pieces of material, which we did.  We declared this place ‘Bible study and prayer room’.  It was once again God’s goodness that we were not prevented from carrying out our plan.  In one of our Bible studies, a beautiful promise of Christ came to our attention: “I know your works.  Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut; I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my Word and have not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8).  After reading the verse aloud, Apraham Hoja jubilated with this comment, “My brothers, this is a direct message to us this morning from the Lord.  Christ is going to open the iron gates of this prison and no one will be able to shut them again.”  Our attention was also drawn to a promise found in Isaiah, “I will go before you and level the mountains; I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron” (45:2). 


With these certainties in mind we taught ourselves to live daily by faith and wait for the verdict of the state superior court in Aleppo.  Prisons are places where rumors circulate from many sources in all directions.  So the hearsay reached us that we would either be sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment or sent as exiles to the desert of Arabia.  Humanly speaking, our future looked grim.  The hope of our deliverance was almost non-existent, but we had a living God in heaven who lifted our spirits with his glorious countenance.  We could expect light in the morning.  One day, we had a very heart-warming visitation by the Holy Spirit. In those moments our imprisonment and future were forgotten.  The Spirit of God brought a peculiar calm and confidence to our hearts.  We surrendered to the sovereign will of our God.  The Lord was with us.  We could recall once again the purging of the refiner’s fire in Proverbs 17:3. In the ordeal of our imprisonment we gathered new vitality as we were enlivened with fresh hope and expectation.  Now we could wait for the hand of the Mighty One to open the gates of Mahpushane and set us free. 


Even though our firm anticipation didn’t develop in the way we believed it would, the anxious waiting did bring us joy at last. The state superior court in Aleppo branded us as members of a subversive political organization.  In accordance with this verdict our punishment would be harsh and protracted. Some people from the outside sent us word that the whole matter could be easily settled if we would collect a certain sum of money (rushvet) to purchase our freedom.  We sent word back that bribery is sin in our faith.  If our God is the God in whom we believe he will deliver us without the intervention of any human agency.  Our unshakable decision brought us fresh strength and we trusted our Lord implicitly, come what may.  But I admit that fear did sometimes disturb our inner peace.  The harsh Ottoman authorities could let us rot in that prison if they chose to do so.  Or they could send us off into exile.  But they could not steal our faith.  As Paul put it in Romans 8:33, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.”   We decided that we must give ourselves to more diligent prayer, asking the Lord to keep our faith firm.


It wasn’t very long until the test of faith came.  One day we received a summons to appear before the tribunal for trial.  We were eagerly waiting for the set date.  We noticed Apraham Hoja was walking back and forth in the courtyard, with a tin cup dangling from his belt.  We wondered about the cup and asked him, “Hoja, what does this mean?  Why did you tie the cup to your belt?”  He quickly replied, “It is a sign of faith.  Be ready, brothers, in the very near future we will all be liberated from this prison.”  We were filled with joy since the answer came from a man whose faith was unshakeable.  Yet we could not restrain ourselves from asking him, “How do you know what is going to happen?”  His calm reply exuded confidence: “The Lord revealed it to me.”  Such an answer was not unusual coming from him.  He spent days and nights in intercession and communion with his God, so totally trusted Him to reveal what lay ahead.  Now our faith was entering a period of testing.  The cup was still dangling from his belt.  The rest of the prisoners started wondering, “What is this man doing, walking around with a cup dangling from his belt?”  But Apraham Hoja continued undisturbed. 


Finally, the day of the court hearing arrived.  Our thoughts were troubled with that famous letter written by Apraham Hoja to Brother Hamparsum and me.  We started wondering how he would reply when he was encountered about the contents of that letter.  Remember, in that letter, the name ‘Zeytun’ was mentioned.  In the Turkish mind, this was like dynamite.  It meant insurrection.  There Apraham Hoja had written, “Convey our greetings to the young men in Zeytun.  We have received the things they sent.  Furthermore, we request that you forward to them the things we sent from this end.”  Although we read the letter often, we could never make any sense out of that particular section of the letter.  What could the young men of Zeytun have sent to Apraham Hoja, and what did he send to us, which was to be forwarded to the Zeytun youth?  The peculiar situation was that Hoja himself had forgotten the whole gist of this part of the letter.  He tried hard to remember, but couldn’t.  Why did it happen that he wrote such a letter to us?  At last, we had a brief conference among ourselves.  Our well-calculated answer was that this reference had nothing to do with any political matter.  We were formulating in our minds the answer we should give: The young men of Zeytun were our Christian brothers.  If there was any doubt about it, Apraham would assume the total responsibility.  This was our thinking, which we conveyed to Apraham Hoja.  He was kind of agitated.  His reply was one of reproof: “You are not at all capable of teaching me; the Lord is the inspirer of the fruit of the lips.  The Lord himself will put into my mouth all that is necessary.  Trust in him, and don’t be afraid.”


On July 1, 1908, we were notified that on the following day we should appear in court.  Upon receiving this summons we dedicated the whole day and night to fasting and prayer.  Our request to God was not that we may be delivered from prison; but rather that we may be supplied with divine wisdom and guidance.  We wanted to speak with holy boldness, exalting our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our aim was to bear witness at the court to the blessed Gospel of Christ which is the power of God unto salvation.


Morning arrived.  The guards and soldiers marched in so that they could take us to the court.  Exactly at that moment, the Spirit of the Lord came upon us in mighty power.  Every one of us twenty-seven brothers was endued with courage.  The scene in the courtroom was awesome.  The presiding judge, the prosecuting attorney for the state and the other members of the tribunal had all taken their respective places and were gazing at us with a stern expression on their faces.  Trusting in God, we quietly took our assigned seats.  A large crowd of spectators had filled the room.  We also noticed that the twelve false witnesses who had delivered us into the hands of the authorities were there.  We were wondering what they were going to say in the court. 


The presiding judge rose to his feet, and stood before an open Bible. (In those days, those who were tried, if Christian took their oath on the Bible, just as Muslims took their oath on the Quran.)  He uttered a quick order: “Stand up.”  We immediately jumped to our feet.  His abrupt request was, “Will you before this book swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”  We answered with a simple “Yes”.  The judge then proceeded to read our names, one by one.  He asked each of us who he was, what he believed and the nature of his occupation.  One after the other, we answered to this effect, “We are servants of the most high God.  We were bestowed with divine grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  We earnestly seek to live the moral and ethical life as commanded by Him.  Furthermore, we are dedicated to proclaim our Lord to all men as Savior and Giver of eternal life to all who believe in him.  We are law-abiding citizens, and have nothing to do with politics.”


Then some of our correspondence that had gone back and forth between the brothers was read.  One had written to another about how he was saved and how the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ had cleansed him from all sin.  Another wrote how the Holy Spirit had convicted him of sin, showed him the way of righteousness and the judgment to come, unless he believed.  Still another had written that subsequent to his conversion he made restitution to those he had wronged.  Again, another brother wrote out the whole of Psalm 51.  At this point, the clerk of the court was called upon to read this psalm, where David in all his openness is confessing the sin he committed.  A soberness came upon all those in the room.  Really, tongue could not describe, nor pen depict the awe which overwhelmed those present at that moment. Many other passages from the Bible which appeared in the letters were also read in the large courtroom.


Finally, Apraham Hoja’s turn came.   The judge motioned him to stand up and directed his questions:

“What is your name?”   “My name, your honor, is Apraham Levonian.”  “Where are you from”  “I’m a native of Aintab.”  “What is your address?”  “I have no address.”  “Where do you stay, and how do you make your living?”  “I start in the morning and preach Jesus Christ from house to house until evening.  Wherever I happen to be at nightfall, there I sleep; whatever is put before me, I eat with thanksgiving.”  The following question of the judge was, “Do you have a license from a hierarchy, or permission to preach?”  Apraham Hoja seized the opportunity and replied with deep emotion, “My license and commission are from God and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  To the judge’s question, “What do you preach?”  our brother answered as his black eyes flashed, “I preach repentance and remission of sins.  I make no distinction between people.  My message is directed to Muslims and Christians alike, showing people the only way to God.  Wherever I am, I consider it my solemn duty to declare to everybody God’s Good News of salvation.”


The judge looked puzzled and was quiet for a moment before he asked, “What you do seems to be wonderful.  However, there is a question before us.  You wrote a letter.  The court needs an explanation about its contents.  In your letter you said you were involved in a fierce warfare surpassing the Russo-Japanese War.  I want you to explain to the court what you meant by this.  Apraham Hoja replied, “Your honor, our warfare is not against flesh and blood; it is a spiritual battle, a combat against Satan and his kingdom.  We all know the cruel nature of the Russo-Japanese War, which took place last year.  On the other hand, the fierce warfare about which I wrote to our friends is against Satan and is undoubtedly deadlier than that.” 


The judge retorted, “Well, you say in that letter to give regards to the young men in Zeytun, and that you received the things they sent.  You also request that they forward the items sent to them.  Who are these young men?  What did they send you, and what did you send them?”  This was the essence of the whole interrogation.  At that moment, the atmosphere was tense and a deadly silence pervaded the room.  The judge asked again, “What were the mysterious things you sent to the young men in Zeytun?”  The suffocating silence was broken by Hoja’s interruption: “Your honor, my handwriting is known by many people.  Please allow me to read the lines in my letter to see exactly what I wrote.  Then I will be ready to answer your question.”  There was a moment’s silence and the judge asked, “Do you really wish to see your letter?  It is not here.  This is a copy; the original one was sent to Aleppo.”  Apraham Hoja without getting agitated replied, “If that be the case, there is no need to discuss the matter further.”  He was speaking with certainty and authority in the wisdom supplied from above.  He lifted both of his hands like a prophet of the Old Testament and with powerful words, said, “Your honor and members of this honorable court, we wish you to realize that we have no political connection.”  With a dramatic flow of language, he continued, “We wouldn’t give five ‘para’ (smallest Ottoman coin) for all the governments of this world.  We are servants of the most high God.”  At that moment, Apraham Hoja’s extraordinary courage and boldness took control of the situation and he directed a very daring warning: “Take care, lest you judge us wrongly.”  Suddenly, he was possessed with divine passion and in a deep resonant voice he thundered, “If you unjustly condemn us, God Almighty will condemn you at his judgment seat.”  His hearers were swayed like water of the sea before a powerful wind.  One would think they realized that there was a frightful punishment awaiting the unjust and evil doers of this age. 


This was the powerful voice that all of us were expecting to hear.  Apraham Hoja’s keen and insightful mind studied the court thoroughly.  The transparency and sincerity of his character armed him with extraordinary boldness to rebel against injustice.  Summoning all his courage, he became the hero of the hour. The sap of prophetic zeal was still running through the trunk and branches of the aged tree.  One could remember the reassuring words of our blessed Lord, “…and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles.  When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour” (Matthew 10:18, 19).  The effect of these concise, but precise words was dramatic and enormously forceful.  The Lord made his mouth like a sharp sword.  Under the spell of this defense the court was swayed as ripened wheat fields are swayed by the wind.  Like his master, he spoke authoritatively.  Just as Felix trembled at Paul’s words about justice, self-control and future judgment, the judge of the court had no other option than to accept Apraham Hoja’s impressive defense.  This event reminds us that when a Christian is under the control of the Holy Spirit, the enemy of truth melts under his forceful words. 


There was a whole series of favorable impressions upon those in the courtroom: the testimonies of several brothers, the letters loaded with praise of God presented to the court, the powerful passages from the Word of God read during the hearing, all of which climaxed with Hoja’s eloquent outburst, had a powerful effect on the judge and everyone present.  These transformed the atmosphere in that court from a mere legal chamber to a classroom where principles of the new life in Christ and conduct of Christian behavior were taught.  One would think that the spirit of revival was brought into the courtroom.  The judge, after hearing and being convinced that there was a special divine power manifesting itself in these lives that were being tried, couldn’t help but be a convert to our cause.  At last, he called for the witnesses.  He asked them one by one, “What is your charge and complaint against these men?”  The answer of one witness was, “Your honor, these men say that ‘we are not sinners.’  We ask, can we be without sin?” The judge retorted, “This is not an item to be discussed in the court.  Religious matters such as these must be solved in the church.”  His conduct reminded us of Gallio’s answer to the Jews in Acts 17, and the town clerk of Ephesus who sought to quiet the over-exuberant crowd displaying their anger against Paul (Acts 19).


Another witness followed, looking very nervous as he, too, encountered the judge’s question.  He was trembling and could hardly talk.  “You—ye—ye—your honor—ah—ah.”  Words froze on his lips.  He was pushed into the position of witness by hypocrites who wanted to destroy the twenty-seven believers through false accusations.  The poor man stood helplessly confounded and in abject humiliation.  He couldn’t answer the questions directed to him.  The judge ordered that he be put out of the courtroom.  What a wonderful hour it had been!  Our just and righteous God totally negated all charges brought against us.  He confused the tongues of false witnesses who through the instigation of others had conspired to do us harm.  Not one of them was able to substantiate any destructive charge of lawlessness against God’s men. 


At this point, the judge who in total fairness conducted the trial, being irritated at what he was witnessing and troubled with this socio-religious injustice, demanded of the witnesses:  “Why do you not tell the truth?  Before me are the charges brought against these men.”  Then he proceeded to read them.  “The arrested men are part of a subversive organization seeking to overthrow the government.”  The Turkish authorities added their own accusation against us: “These men, members of a dangerous, subversive organization, will stab the Turkish government in the heart.”  When the witnesses heard this, they suddenly protested, “We haven’t made such an accusation against them; we only signed this statement without reading its contents.”  Then the judge branded them as liars and provocateurs.  “How could a person sign a statement whose contents he’s unaware of?  If your dispute is based on religious matters and doings, why did you not solve it within your own Armenian church?  Why did you trouble this court?  Why did you allow innocent men to rot in prison cells for eleven months?”  They were all confused and troubled.  They left the courtroom and behind them a whole pile of deliberate deceit, betrayal and hypocrisy.  Their sin followed them. 


Pending the return from Aleppo of Apraham Hoja’s famous or infamous letter, the court adjourned for a week.  Once again, we returned to our miserable quarters, ready to appear at any given moment.  Apraham’s celebrated tin cup continued to dangle from his belt as he moved from cell to cell to tell each prisoner about the Savior.  We experienced that the short, dark days of winter were overcome by the light and warmth supplied by our Savior which enabled us to daily sing hymns of worship and praise to Him.  We continued to study of God’s Word and spend much time in prayer.  Fresh love and loyalty were generated in all our hearts.  We were waiting expectantly for the next sitting of our trial. 


The week was half gone.  The day of our trial was fast approaching.  One morning, my brother Moses came to me and whispered that he had some very important news to share.  The guards had become very friendly toward us, so it was no problem to obtain their permission to go and have a special conversation with him.  When we met, he excitedly said, “Vartan, I have some excellent news for you, but don’t break it to the others yet.  I have heard that liberty has been proclaimed throughout the Ottoman Empire and that the cruel emperor, Abdul Hamid II (1876-1908) has been deposed.  The officers known as ‘Young Turks’, have taken over the reins of the government.”  The date was the 24th of July, 1908.  This piece of news came to me as cold water to a thirsty traveler in the hot desert.  To tell the truth, I was overwhelmed with joy.  It was impossible to keep this fantastic item of news to myself.  I returned to my prison cell and whispered to our other friends the heartening information conveyed by Moses that the cruel emperor had been deposed by an army junta. They looked into my eyes waiting to hear the sequel of this cheering, unexpected development.  I said, “Quiet — we don’t want the other prisoners to learn about it yet, because then we will find ourselves in trouble.  Wait until the news can be confirmed.”  They complied and commented, “True, we need to be sure of the authenticity of this report.”  I went on explaining to them that the Young Turks had proclaimed liberty throughout the land.  There were no bounds to our joy.  We eagerly anticipated the developments.  It was only a few hours later when we found out that this information was accurate in its entirety.  Looking around, we sensed an electrified atmosphere.  The guards started whispering among themselves.  Then the repetitious questions were heard throughout the prison compound, “What’s happening? What s going on?”  At last the confirmation of the news broke forth into a shout of contagious jubilation: “Liberty has finally come to Turkey!”  Everything that had been heard and said turned out to be true. 


The joy and thrill we experienced on that occasion cannot be easily imagined.  We threw our arms around each other, hugging and kissing one another, all the while laughing, weeping and praising God.  This emperor had initiated the Armenian massacre in the East in 1895.  However, we could not foresee that a much worse massacre was in the offing instigated by the very officers who had taken over the reins of the government.  But we were all rejoicing at the development of the hour.  It was impossible to sleep that night.  We were relieved that there would not be another court trial before us; also there was no need left for Apraham Hoja’s oft-mentioned letter to come from Aleppo.  We were free!  All of us twenty-seven believers were now crowned with the reward of our faith and prayer.  Praise God, Apraham Hoja’s prophecy turned out to be true.  The dangling cup at his belt was a token of a journey before each one of us – not to exile in an Arabian desert from which travelers never return – but to glorious liberty. 


Where was our presiding judge?  Where was the person who forged the chains for our feet?  Where was the man who prepared the gallows to break our necks?  At the sound of ‘liberty’ those who did evil became frightened.  They left the city of Marash in the darkness of night, fleeing for their lives: “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1).  I could remember the arrogant threat of the commissioner who had boasted to us, “If your Jesus can deliver you out of my hands, let him do it.”  This man barely escaped the assault of his fellow-Turks.  The soldiers assisted him to hide; he became a prisoner in his own land.


The God whom we loved and worshiped and his Son, Jesus Christ, whom we adored and served, brought to naught all the villainous conspiracy of evil-planners and shattered their might.  In the eleventh hour the Lord heard our cry and the Almighty came down from heaven with his unimagined deliverance.  The angel of the Lord who delivered the imprisoned Peter from the hands of Herod did an equally great act when he shook the Ottoman Empire from its very foundation, demolished the iron bars and set us at liberty.  He turned six hundred years of Turkish misrule and misery upside down.  He brought the long overdue freedom which was not in anyone’s mind.  Abdul Hamid was sent into exile to the city of Selanik (Thessaloniki, then in Turkish hands). To think of forcing such a ruler to abdicate and then imprison him in a salt mine was beyond our wildest imagination.  But it really happened.  That night passed; morning came, and everything was calm and quiet.  “…weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5b).


Our freedom did not come immediately.  No official representative or responsible person could be found to pronounce our release.  Brother Moses sent a telegram to a Kemal Pasha in Istanbul, inquiring why prisoners were still incarcerated even after liberty had been proclaimed throughout the country.  A short while later the orders came to release all political prisoners, among whom we were the important ones.