Thomas Cosmades



Apraham Hoja of Aintab


Chapter 8

Out of Prison, into Freedom


During the harsh and brutal reign of the emperor Abdul Hamid II, there was wide-spread political opposition in the country. This inevitably ended up in long prison sentences for those accused.  All jails were full of such prisoners. Even though our group was not involved in politics we were unjustly considered political prisoners.  At the opening of the prison gates all prisoners accused of some political offense were set free.  The chief attorney for the state came to the courtyard where we customarily gathered to sing hymns.  He addressed us in particular:  “Roohjular! Through the liberty just proclaimed you are gaining your freedom.  From now on, no one can disturb you.  You are free to worship God in accordance with the dictates of your conscience.”  The remark made by the mayor in the privacy of his office some time before has been mentioned: “My sons, you are recipients of divine illumination.  Don’t be afraid; God will set you free.”  This morning again he came to the courtyard and addressed us, “Roohjular!  I encouraged you before and now I repeat it, that God has set you free.  No one can do any harm to you.  You are at liberty to go into the highways and by-ways, to your vineyards and hills, glorifying and praising your God.”


When this kind official concluded his proclamation of our freedom, one of our group, Garabed Roubian, was joined by an Armenian Apostolic priest, Der Hagop. They led us all out of prison accompanied by a band playing hymns.  Our appearance as free people was the signal for a joyful outburst of celebration.  The whole city had already heard that the ‘Roohjular’ had gained their freedom.  People rushed to line both sides of the streets to see us as we passed by.  Music filled the air.  Hymns of praise rose above the volume of the instruments.  Heart-stirring chants swept over the ecstatic crowds, which grew in volume as the procession advanced. One could resemble the spectacle to a mighty river uninterruptedly running its course.  Roads were filled with throngs of rejoicing men and women.  Housetops were the vantage point for many happy spectators.  Shop owners and merchants along the route joined in jubilant celebration.  Literally everyone took part in the festivities.  It was a time when people didn’t hold back their emotions. But there were some who didn’t actually know what was going on.  They were asking, “What’s happening?”  The reply was supplied by those who knew: “The ‘Roohjular’ have been set free from prison.  This is a miracle!”  Others remarked, “The liberty proclaimed today has happened for the sake of these innocent ‘Roohjular’.”  The spontaneous outpouring of joy from pent-up sentiments was a release of unrestrained emotion.  To us prisoners the whole series of events was like an inexplicable dream. Only a few days before, the prospect of being sent off to an Arabian desert had hung over our heads like a dark cloud. Now, here we were, a happy group of released prisoners being cheered on by an impromptu assembly. 


Following an unjust imprisonment Joseph was freed with Pharaoh’s order.  He rode triumphantly in his chariot to become chancellor of Egypt.  Mordecai received high honor from the King of Persia to the chagrin of his arch-enemy Haman, and in Shushan he became the chief minister of the country.  And now we, a group of insignificant citizens of Marash, were being set free by the grace of our sovereign God.  The whole procession moved on to Karasun Manoog (Forty Children) Church.  There Arsen Efendi Bilezikian killed a young goat at our feet as a token of sacrifice and offering of thanksgiving to our heavenly Father.  Following this, we entered the crowded church where Reverend Aharon gave a message of gratitude and praise to God.  He emphasized the Lord’s mighty power to perform miracles.  He had delivered these prisoners of Christ just as He had saved the apostles from the hands of Herod in the early stage of the Church. 


Apraham Hoja was standing at the door of the church as the rest of us were entering.  Afterwards, we looked around but we couldn’t detect him in the crowd.  We later learned that our eccentric brother with the cup still dangling from his belt and his bedding on his back was already on his way to his native Aintab, a two-day journey on foot.  He hadn’t even stayed for the service.  As was his custom, he didn’t carry any food along for the road.  He was simply trekking on toward his destination, becoming increasingly hungry as the hours wore on.  Suddenly he heard a voice calling him from behind.  He stopped.  The man who called him came closer and immediately spoke to the hoja: “God revealed to me that I should take food to a certain lone traveler.  So here it is.  Please eat.  Good appetite!”  Apraham Hoja had been sure that God would provide food for his nourishment.  He gratefully accepted the offering, and with deep appreciation started eating his favorite dish, pilaf, after expressing his gratitude to the Lord.  Following this divine provision, he again went on his way.  No doubt, other God-sent helpers came to his assistance.  He arrived in Aintab safely. 


Apraham Hoja’s sudden departure from Marash, especially when all of us were holding a thanksgiving and victory celebration, made everybody feel sad.  They would have wanted to see him among us.  However, I knew what prompted him to act in the way he did.  He had told me that on the night of the first day of the proclamation of liberty in the Ottoman Empire, he had a dream.  “I was in a room with a wild, mad cat.  It attacked me.  I tried to defend myself with a club.”  At this point, I interrupted him:  “Hoja, can you give me the interpretation of this dream?”  He immediately replied, “The cat is the cruel Sultan Abdul Hamid.  Even though liberty has been proclaimed and we now enjoy freedom, it will be short-lived while Hamid is still alive.  We may be arrested again.” 


Hoja’s dream and its interpretation proved to be right.  Barely six months elapsed from the time we breathed a little air of freedom when those happy songs and hearty shouts were again muffled.  The bloody massacre of fifty thousand Christians brought an end to the brief period of rejoicing. They sealed their commitment to Jesus Christ in martyrdom in the Cilician region.  That fierce cat in the dream was an omen of the death of Armenian Christians in yet another massacre.


We enjoyed immensely our six-month period of freedom when each of us was reunited with his family and friends.  We jubilated as the Jews did at their release from the Babylonian captivity: “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.  Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’  The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad…May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!  He that goes forth weeping bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:1-3, 5, 6). 


How we wished that this joy were country-wide and permanent.  After the toppling of Abdul Hamid, the country was in further confusion and distress.  There were some whose hearts were still with the deposed emperor, and others who desired genuine democracy.  The segment which came out as victor from this conflict was arresting and imprisoning the leaders of the corrupt monarchy.  What was happening in all other areas was also wrecking our city of Marash.  I have already mentioned that the governor, the judiciary and other officials all fled from the city under cover.  The police commissioner was hiding, being protected by soldiers.  There was good reason for it.  He was attacked by angry mobs of released inmates.  One of the false witnesses in our court case, an Armenian chiefly responsible for our incarceration and suffering, was apprehended.  Those who captured him did something that went to the extreme.  They painted his face black and paraded him through the streets and market places, totally humiliating him.  Quite by accident one of our liberated brothers witnessed this sad spectacle.  He also heard that another one of those false accusers, responsible for our imprisonment, was due to undergo the same treatment.  Immediately the brothers ran to him, and in the spirit of mercy and forgiveness told him what was about to happen.  They urged him to hide himself as quickly as possible.  But it was too late; they had been preceded by the angry mob that had already inflicted the same punishment on the first man they caught.  The Scriptural maxim always turns out to be true: “…behold, you have sinned against the LORD; and be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).  It was a clear display of the Lord’s delivering his own. “…then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (II Peter 2:9).


Abdul Hamid’s cruel and merciless reign could not crush those who boldly witnessed for Christ; it could not bind the Word of God.  Now with his fall a fresh challenge was before us to start witnessing with renewed vigor for our Lord Jesus Christ.  Soon after our release, we began proclaiming the Gospel with great enthusiasm. Apraham Hoja, who was always in touch with his Lord, had told me in prison that a massacre of immense magnitude was going to happen.  It would bring an end to many Christian lives, especially able-bodied men.  The awful memories from the period of the cruel emperor still haunted everybody. The mourning and weeping of widows and orphans continued.  Life was vague and meaningless for many bereaved people.  “Who is sufficient for these things?”  We knew well that “the Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our tribulation” was entirely sufficient to meet everybody’s need at that hour.  Our life continued in proclaiming the Good News and comforting the bereaved. 


Four of our company, Panos Der Kazarian, Karekin Vaneskehian, Arshaver Janikian and Takwor Janikian, went to Hasanbeyli, a beautiful town at the Cilician Gateway, about a hundred kilometers northeast of Tarsus. All able-bodied men in the town had been massacred.  Our brothers started powerfully preaching to the remnant of Armenians still living there.  The Word was sown faithfully to sorrow-laden hearts, prepared by the Holy Spirit to receive Christ and his comfort.  


Sometime later, God directed my steps to go to Hasanbeyli.  There I witnessed God’s wonderful grace accomplishing his work of salvation in many people’s hearts.  We held meetings every night in different houses.  People would break spontaneously into singing and without any urging, they would stand up and share their testimonies.  Our proclamation of the Good News in homes and market places went on unabated.  People from all walks of life, after encountering the Savior, entered into the true spirit of fellowshipping with each other.  The whole town felt the impact of the profound working of the Holy Spirit.  The blessed Comforter seemed to have come to this place with a special mission.  He crushed sinners’ hearts, broke the spirits of unrepentant people and bathed their wounds in the balm of God’s love.  In their new-found joy, they almost forgot their sorrow.  “…to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3).


Being entirely overwhelmed by the joy experienced in Hasanbeyli, I returned to Marash.  In this great city of Christianity, Germanoikeia, before being given its Turkish name, the American Congregational missionaries had established a strong center, which included a theological seminary.  One of the brilliant students in this school was Reverend Mihran Bozuklian.  Even though the school did not teach much about eschatology this young man was immersed in the study of Christ’s Second Coming.  Evening after evening he conducted a series of Bible studies around the subject of ‘The Blessed Hope’ in our home.  People were delighted with the wonderful prospect of Christ’s return.  They thronged to hear the convincing messages of Brother Bozuklian on this marvelous theme. It was a strenuous undertaking for him, since during the day he was immersed in his studies.  However, he was constrained by the Holy Spirit to render this service to people who were in the midst of a revival.


Stirred by this fresh study of Christ’s return to earth, Brother Bedros Agulian and I were commissioned by the Holy Spirit to reach out to the various cities and towns on an evangelistic itinerary.  These trips at times took us to distant locations.  Here are the places we were privileged to visit: Hajin, Everek, Zinjidere, Kayseri, Kirshehir, Aksaray, and Konya.  The Lord, who had set us apart for this ministry, used us in our weakness for the salvation of many people, and also for the edification of believers.  Other towns visited were Adana, Tarsus and Osmaniye, where we also witnessed the moving of the Holy Spirit in bringing joy and delight to hearts of men and women.  Everywhere we went, people living in the uncertainty of the time welcomed us as if we were angels sent from God.  We were on the threshold of WW I.  The Ottoman Empire was being wrecked, both domestically and externally. The passing of the governmental machine to the young revolutionaries did not make any difference.  Matters were only getting worse.  We met troubled souls everywhere.  Those who could interpret the times knew that ominous days lay ahead.  Only the message of Jesus Christ was a balm to the hearts of hurting people.  In the midst of these rich blessings, it seemed strange that our time in Anatolia was coming to its close. We remembered that God took Philip from the revival in Samaria and carried him to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.  On this desert road he met the Ethiopian official and had the joy of introducing him to the Savior.    Now at last, some of us were being led to leave Anatolia and launch out to another part of the world to preach to our people who had left the country before us.