How one man’s devotion to a 240-year-old church in the heart of Dhaka saved a unique monument in South Asia.
In April, as the coronavirus pandemic dominated the world’s headlines, Michael Martin, famous for being the last of a centuries-old Armenian community living in Bangladesh, passed away not long before his 90th birthday.
His death led many to wonder what would happen to the most prominent reminder of Armenian heritage in Bangladesh — the historic church he dedicated much of his life to.
Armenians first settled in Dhaka in the early 1700s. Many of the settlers had been subjects of the Persian Empire, so were able to assimilate to life under the Persian-speaking Mughal rulers of the region.
Armenians in Dhaka were known as skilled businesspeople who dealt in jute — a stringy plant used to make sack cloth and other goods. They often served as mediators between locals and European traders.
In the early 1800s, 126 Armenians lived in Dhaka, in a suburb named Armanitola, but the small population dwindled rapidly as economic conditions deteriorated.
With Armenians nearly gone from Dhaka by the 1980s, the church began to fall into ruin.
But in 1986 Michael Martin, one of just a handful of ethnic Armenians remaining in Dhaka, and his wife Veronica, became guardians of the church. Veronica died in 2005.
Martin wrote that when they took over the property it was “covered with garbage and needed immediate attention.”
The couple and their three daughters also faced intense hostility from some locals, who Martin said threatened “my life along with my family…. They used to scare us by hanging voodoo stuff from the trees and burying things in front of the house. God always protected us from the evil.”
After decades spent repairing and guarding the church — on at least one occasion by threatening to use the rifle he kept in his residence — Michael Martin suffered a stroke in 2014 and relocated to Canada. But not before passing guardianship of the church onto someone he trusted.
In 2010, Los Angeles-based businessman Armen Aslanyan was on a work trip to Dhaka and first heard about the Armenian Church. After meeting with Martin, the two became close friends. After his 2014 stroke, Aslanyan told RFE/RL that Martin took him aside and said “Armen, you know now it’s you [who has to protect the church], I have to leave.”
Aslanyan says he was taken aback at the prospect of preserving a church on the other side of the world. “I said I’m not that religious so I know nothing about this and I don’t live here.”
But after Martin told the jet-setting Aslanyan that his taking over the guardianship of the church was all part of God’s plan, Aslanyan laughs that Martin “was putting it in such a way that I’m thinking ‘my God, he’s probably right.’ I mean what was I doing in Dhaka right at that time? I was born in Argentina, I’m living in [Los Angeles]…”
Under Aslanyan’s wardenship the Armenian Church now has “a very loyal” Hindu family living full-time on the premises. Aslanyan has also founded a trust to look after the church “not for the next 50 years, but for the next 200 years.”
Aslanyan says the church was in “complete disarray” when Martin took over wardenship in the 1980s, and recalls a story about the late caretaker’s response when a local Muslim gang vowed to kill him. “He said, OK fine. I have eight bullets here [for my rifle] so I know that I will die, but eight of you will come with me.”
A post on a website of the Armenian Church said after Martin’s death:
Mr. Martin was instrumental in maintaining the survival of the Armenian Church in Dhaka. Without the many personal sacrifices and complete devotion to the church, the premises and the history of the Armenians in Dhaka would not have survived today. He and his family spearheaded what can only be described as a monumental effort to preserve our beautiful church, and it is something that will never be forgotten.