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The Church’s history in Armenia and a new time of rebuilding

An earthquake, cement factory, portable baptismal font are all part of the story of the Church in Armenia

Yerevan Armenia District President Sargis B. Ayvazyan and his wife, Margarit Ayvazyan, stand side by side in front of the Huntsman office building, where they were both baptized. Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
A view of Yerevan, Armenia, from the hills around the city on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Elder Noah Wright, center, with his mother, Hripsime Zatikyan Wright, and one of the missionaries who taught her in Armenia in 1999, Ben Mathews, are pictured together at Elder Wright’s mission farewell in Bountiful, Utah, Aug. 28, 2022. Provided by Hripsime Zatikyan Wright
Hripsime Zatikyan stands in white between a man and a woman at her baptism in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 17, 1999. Provided by Hripsime Zatikyan Wright
Two missionaries pose with two members of the Zatikyan family in their home in April 1999 in Armenia. Provided by Hripsime Zatikyan Wright
The former Huntsman concrete factory in Yerevan, Armenia, is pictured on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Huntsman family
Four man in suits stand during the unveiling of a plaque honoring David M. Horne at the concrete factory in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1996. Huntsman family
A plaque on the wall of the former Huntsman concrete factory honors David M. Horne, a humanitarian missionary who helped countless Armenians rebuild after the 1998 earthquake. Pictured on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Provided by Elder Ronald A. Rasband
Elder Paul Picard, General Authority Seventy in the Europe Central Area, is pictured as a young full-time missionary standing with a group of people in Armenia in 1998. Provided by Elder Paul Picard
Elder Paul Picard, General Authority Seventy in the Europe Central Area, is pictured as a young full-time missionary standing in a group of people in Armenia in 1998 on the back row, third from left. Provided by Elder Paul Picard
Elder Noah Zatikyan Wright, from Bountiful, Utah, whose mother survived the 1988 Armenian earthquake and later joined the Church, is serving a full time mission in Armenia. He is pictured in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 19, 2023. Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The meetinghouse in Yerevan, Armenia, is pictured on April 18, 2023. Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The meetinghouse in Yerevan, Armenia, is pictured on April 18, 2023. Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The meetinghouse in Yerevan, Armenia, is pictured on April 18, 2023. Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

YEREVAN, Armenia — Hripsime Zatikyan Wright was born when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, and she was never taught that there was a God.

When she was 12 years old, a huge earthquake destroyed 90% of her hometown, killing at least 25,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. Wright, who has recounted her experience in an article found in Gospel Library, was in school when the shaking began. As a crowd started to run down the stairs, she followed an impression to go back and get a red knit scarf her mother had made.

She then watched, red knit scarf in hand, as the stairway collapsed, killing everyone on it. Her family also survived the earthquake and its ensuing destruction.

After college, Wright met two missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Yerevan. She learned the gospel from them, praying for the first time in her life and receiving a witness that Heavenly Father was real and the gospel was true.

Wright was baptized, and later served a mission on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Eventually her family was also baptized, as well as other relatives and friends. 

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Elder Noah Zatikyan Wright, center, with his mother, Hripsime Zatikyan Wright, and one of the missionaries who taught her in Armenia in 1999, Ben Mathews, are pictured together at Elder Wright’s mission farewell in Bountiful, Utah, Aug. 28, 2022.
Elder Noah Zatikyan Wright, center, with his mother, Hripsime Zatikyan Wright, and one of the missionaries who taught her in Armenia in 1999, Ben Mathews, are pictured together at Elder Wright’s mission farewell in Bountiful, Utah, Aug. 28, 2022. | Provided by Hripsime Zatikyan Wright

Wright later married and now lives in Utah. She started to cry when her son, Elder Noah Zatikyan Wright, opened his mission call and read that he had been called to serve in her homeland. 

Elder Wright has been in Armenia since November 2022, teaching the gospel like the missionaries who taught his mother. 

“My whole family — we are covenanted together for eternity,” he told the Church News in Armenia on April 18. “How could I not love my mother? She wouldn’t give up, and because she knew it was true and wouldn’t deny it, I am here.” 

Elder Wright’s first area on his mission was Gyumri — formerly known as Leninakan — the same town where his mother survived the earthquake. “From that moment, her life was consecrated, it was different.” 

Yerevan, Armenia, on April 18, 2023.
Yerevan, Armenia, on April 18, 2023. | Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Rebuilding after the 1988 Armenian earthquake

During a ministry assignment to Europe this April, Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited Armenia — where approximately 50,000 people died and half a million became homeless after the Armenian earthquake on Dec. 7, 1988. 

One week after the 1988 disaster, then-Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met with the Soviet ambassador in Washington, D.C. to convey condolences and present a check for humanitarian aid, according to information about Armenia on ChurchofJesusChrist.org

Meanwhile, after visiting Leninakan, businessman Jon M. Huntsman Sr. also felt that he must do something about the humanitarian crisis. 

The poorly-built buildings collapsed quickly in the earthquake. He felt that he could help the people the most by helping them rebuild safer, stronger buildings.

Jon M. Huntsman Sr. and his sons, David H. Huntsman and Peter Huntsman, stand or sit on a pile of rubble in Gyumri (formerly known as Leninakan), Armenia, on Jan. 4, 1990.
Jon M. Huntsman Sr. and his sons, David H. Huntsman and Peter Huntsman, in Gyumri (formerly known as Leninakan), Armenia, on Jan. 4, 1990. | Huntsman family

Huntsman’s son, Elder David H. Huntsman, currently serving as an Area Seventy in the Church’s Utah Area, said one of the things his father noticed was that all of the humanitarian efforts were short-term.

“My father wanted to do something different,” Elder Huntsman said. “He knew that to truly recover from such a devastating natural disaster would take decades.” He decided to make an investment in the country by helping build new, safer apartments and to build self-reliance at the same time.

Jon M. Huntsman Sr. and his business associate, now-Elder Rasband, came to Armenia in January 1990 to begin the process of starting a cement factory.

In response to the earthquake and resulting crisis, humanitarian and rebuilding efforts at the factory were completed in partnership with volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jon M. Huntsman Sr. and Elder Rasband attended a dinner at Lake Sevan with government officials. Huntsman talked about how the endeavor would need humanitarian missionary couples to come and serve at the plant and also have a place to worship.

The former Huntsman concrete factory in Yerevan, Armenia, is pictured on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. The site is now private property.
The former Huntsman concrete factory in Yerevan, Armenia, is pictured on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. The site is now private property. | Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Elder David Huntsman remembers sitting around the table with his father, Elder Rasband and the others. 

“I remember the question being asked about missionaries,” he said. “I remember the minister giving permission for missionaries to get into the country. That was the formal opening of the door. It was at a government retreat, a private residence. I’ll always remember the meal and the conversation.”

Church leader visits to Armenia

The Republic of Armenia — a mountainous country bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran — became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Visits from Church leaders in the early 1990s included President Howard W. Hunter, who traveled with Jon Huntsman Sr. and Elder Rasband to the country. Then-Elder Nelson and then-Elder Dallin H. Oaks, serving at the time in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the area presidency worked to ensure the Church could be recognized in the country.

Meanwhile, the Huntsman factory was producing materials to help re-house tens of thousands of Armenians left homeless by the earthquake. 

David M. Horne lived on the ground in Armenia for the Huntsman Corporation and was instrumental in this process. He also coordinated the shipment and delivery of dozens of railcars of food to residents during the severe winters.

In light of these efforts, the Church was officially registered in Armenia in December 1995.

But Horne died in January 1996 after an accidental propane gas explosion in his Yerevan apartment. A plaque was placed on the outside of the cement factory to honor Horne as a longtime friend of the Armenian people.

Elder Rasband visits the Huntsman factory

The Huntsman cement factory — which helped so many Armenians rebuild — has long been out of operation and the property has new owners. But Elder Rasband was able to briefly see the site once again on Wednesday, April 19.

With emotion he touched the plaque on an outer wall honoring Horne, who was Elder Rasband’s friend.

Margarit Ayvazyan walked to the old building with Elder Rasband. “Standing by his side and watching him feel so deeply, I could tell he loved the place. I’m glad he could see it,” she said.

Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Sister Melanie Rasband see a plaque honoring David M. Horne at the site of the former Huntsman cement factory in Yerevan, Armenia, April 19, 2023.
Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Sister Melanie Rasband see a plaque honoring David M. Horne at the site of the former Huntsman cement factory in Yerevan, Armenia, April 19, 2023. | Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visits the site of the former Huntsman factory in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 19, 2023. With him are his wife, Sister Melanie Rasband, left; his granddaughter, Sister Maggie MacPherson, a full-time missionary in the Armenia/Georgia Mission; Margarit Ayvazyan; and Elder Paul Picard, an Area Seventy in the Europe Central Area, right.
Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visits the site of the former Huntsman factory in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 19, 2023. With him are his wife, Sister Melanie Rasband, left; his granddaughter, Sister Maggie MacPherson, a full-time missionary in the Armenia/Georgia Mission; Margarit Ayvazyan; and Elder Paul Picard, an Area Seventy in the Europe Central Area, right. | Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Elder Paul Picard, an Area Seventy in the Europe Central Area who accompanied Elder Rasband to Armenia, was a young full-time missionary in the country in the late 1990s. From the street he pointed to the window of the room where he and other missionaries before and after him baptized new members in a portable baptismal font.

Elder Paul Picard, General Authority Seventy in the Europe Central Area, is pictured on the back row, third from left, when he was a young full-time missionary in Armenia in 1998. He and other missionaries baptized people in a portable baptismal font at offices by the Huntsman concrete factory in Yerevan.
Elder Paul Picard, General Authority Seventy in the Europe Central Area, is pictured on the back row, third from left, when he was a young full-time missionary in Armenia in 1998. He and other missionaries baptized people in a portable baptismal font at offices by the Huntsman concrete factory in Yerevan. | Provided by Elder Paul Picard

“We are taking about hundreds of people,” he said. “It was for us a safe haven. We felt like we were home.”

Elder Picard and his wife, Sister Elodie Picard, served as mission leaders in the Armenia/Georgia Mission from 2019-2022. While visiting Armenia this past week, he has greeted many friends, Church members and missionaries. 

“This is precious,” he said.

Margarit Ayvazyan and her husband, Yerevan Armenia District President Sargis B. Ayvazyan, were both baptized at the office building.

Margarit Ayvazyan knew Horne and his wife through their volunteer work and their examples to the new Church members. She said they helped her go on a mission. Now the Ayvazyans have three sons — one is serving a full-time mission in Armenia right now.

The three Ayvazyan brothers in Yerevan, Armenia, stand shoulder to shoulder on April 19, 2023.
The Ayvazyan brothers in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 19, 2023. | Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Church in Armenia

“The people of Armenia have great faith and they have a real commitment,” Elder David Huntsman said. “You knew once the gospel got there and took root, it would grow and flourish.”

Armenia has some of the oldest Christian roots of any nation in the world. The restored gospel of these latter-days began to grow in the Ottoman Empire in 1884 when a Mr. Vartoogian wrote a letter asking missionaries to come teach his family in Istanbul. Many people from the Armenian community became converted, and by the early 1900s, branches had been established in the area. 

But in 1921, with fighting in the area, many Church members were suffering. The mission president, Joseph W. Booth, was able to get the group permission to leave Aintab (now called Gaziantep) for Aleppo, Syria. This was called the Armenian exodus. When they safely arrived, Booth said, “This is an incident wherein the power of God has been clearly manifested, and the Saints are grateful for His wonderful care and mercy.” 

Over time, the Saints left Aleppo, most immigrating to Utah or to other countries.

The Book of Mormon had been translated in 1937 into Western Armenian, which is spoken by Armenians living outside of Armenia. In March 1991, the first translation of the Book of Mormon into Eastern Armenian was published. 

The Yerevan chapel in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 18, 2023.
The Yerevan chapel in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 18, 2023. | Christina Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Mikhail Oskar Belousaov, the first man to join the Church in Armenia, was baptized in March 1992. In April, 1992, Nara Sarkissian was baptized as the first woman to join the Church in Armenia. The Yerevan Branch was organized in January 1994.

In the 1990s, as missionary work increased, baptisms moved from the temporary font at the Huntsman cement factory offices to a chapel. Membership steadily grew in Armenia, and a stake was formed in June 2013

But a few years later, activity and membership numbers declined and Church membership in the country was organized in a district; members and the missionaries are working to rebuild its branches.

Like the physical rebuilding after the earthquake in 1988, the visit of Elder Rasband this week to Armenia brings hope of a spiritual rebuilding for the Church.

Margarit Ayvazyan said: “When an Apostle comes to visit, it means the heavens are open.”

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