7 • Involvement of the ACO in France

Spiritual retreat in Marseilles 1934

Involvement of the ACO in France

When France gave up Cilicia to Turkey in 1921, a large number of Armenian survivors of the genocide managed to take refuge not only in Aleppo … but also in France! Some were Protestants and had been known to Paul Berron since the days of the First World War. Indeed, the Armenian Protestant Church of the Ottoman Empire was important and several Armenian pastors played a key role in Aleppo during the genocide by taking care of orphans and other victims.

The refugees who arrived in France at the beginning of the 1920s had lost everything: they were stateless, spoke little French and discovered a world, the habits and customs of which they did not know. They had to live in miserable camps in Marseilles. Acquaintances Paul Berron had known in the Middle East asked him for his help in organizing the life of the Church.

Thanks to Armenian pastors and evangelists recruited by ACO, church members could benefit from worship in Armenian and Turkish while settling down in France, thus helping them to stay close to their spiritual and cultural roots. A bilingual Christian magazine called Panpere (the Messenger) was born. It still exists!

Armenians refugee children, in the district of Saint-Louis in Marseille

Very quickly several parishes were established in Lyon as well as Marseilles and the Paris area. The founding Synod of what will be the Union of Evangelical Armenian Churches of France took place in 1927. Until World War II this mission field was as important for ACO as that of Syria. The pastors of this Church were principally paid by the ACO. The leadership was collegial, provided by both members of the ACO and the Armenian Church. After the war, the Union gradually became independent, which was confirmed by a solemn church service in 1964.

Armenian protestant church in Saint-Julien, Marseilles, 1939
Algerian workers were hosted at the ACO’s head office

But it was now in Strasbourg that the ACO was called to play a part in history. From the 1950s onwards, companies in need of manpower recruited many Algerian workers. Near to the ACO headquarters, several unsanitary barracks housed many of these workers whose living conditions were difficult. The ACO took care of them by combining social work and evangelical witness. A specific association: Accueil Familial Nord-Africain (AFNA) was created to take responsibility of this new field of action. Methodist missionary Paul Brès and his wife Akila, who had been exiled from Algeria after the country’s independence, were in charge. This is also when the leadership of the ACO moved from Paul Berron to Pastor Robert Brecheisen.

When Pastor Brès retired in 1988, the situation changed completely: the population of North African origin was quite well integrated. The new challenge that then occured was at the level of interreligious dialogue. AFNA became the « Protestant Service for Relations with Islam« . The ACO was in charge of this important work until the years following 2000 when the Protestant Churches of Alsace and Lorraine took it over themselves.

Pastor Paul Brès
Youth camp of the Armenian protestant churches – Chambon-sur-Lignon, 1946