BY REV. DR. VAHAN H. TOOTIKIAN
Every year, on the Thursday preceding the Great Lent, Armenians throughout the world celebrate Vartanants Day in commemoration of one of their most heroic struggles. It was a war of human rights between Zoroastrian Persia and Christian Armenia in the year 451. The cause was freedom of conscience, freedom of religion.
In 387, Armenia came under the control of the then-two superpowers: the Byzantine and Persian empires. The Persian Empire had ambitions for world domination. It wanted to defeat the Byzantines. The Armenians, who shared the same religion as the Christian Byzantines, were an obstacle to the Persian Empire’s expansionist plans. In order to force the Armenians to convert to the Zoroastrian religion, the king of Persia decreed that all Christians under his rule should abandon their religion and accept Zoroastrianism, which was the worship of sun and fire.
The Armenian spiritual and lay leadership refused to do so and the Persian king countered this refusal with a heavy hand. The Persians sent a huge army of 300,000 strong to crush the resistance and enforce the king’s decree.
In 451 A.D., on the field of Avarayr near Mount Ararat, a band of 66,000 semi-trained and poorly equipped Armenian fighters, under the leadership of General Vartan Mamigonian, confronted the huge invading army of Persians. Vartan and his comrades suffered a military defeat.
What followed was 33 years of a desultory war, a struggle that was a guerilla war conducted against the Persians by some clergy and peasants.
In 481, Vartan’s nephew, Vahan Mamigonian, took over. A combination of factors turned the tide in favor of the Armenians. First, Vahan appears to have been a superb guerrilla leader. Second, the Georgians revolted against Persian rule. Third, the Kushans of the Central Asian frontier kept up the pressure with their border raids on Persia.
From 481 to 484, Vahan Mamigonian carried out six battles against the Persians and became victorious. King Vagharsh of Persia decided to stop the fighting. He sent Prince Nekhor to Vahan to settle the “Armenian problem” peacefully.
In the spring of 484, in the village of Nvarsag on the Armeno-Persian border, a treaty was signed between the Armenians and Persians known as the Treaty of Nvarsag. The treaty contained the following important conditions:
- Freedom of conscience and religion; Christians were to be free to worship as their religion dictated;
- Apostates would not be permitted to take office, and unworthy persons would be kept from high governmental positions;
- Without a legal trial, accused persons were not to be punished.
The treaty became a victory for Christian Armenians; Christianity was now a legalized religion in Armenia. The Vartanants battle for human rights had achieved its victorious fulfillment with Vahan Mamigonian’s victory. It was Armenia’s Magna Carta, the document serving as a guarantee of basic human rights.
\Rev. Dr. Vahan H. Tootikian is the Minister Emeritus of the Armenian Congregational Church of Greater Detroit and the Executive Director of the Armenian Evangelical World Council.