INTERVIEW WITH HIS HOLINESS, THE CATHOLICOS OF THE GREAT HOUSE OF CILICIA, ARAM I
29 July 08
I had the honour and the privilege to meet with and interview His
Holiness, the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, Aram I between
19:00-20:00 on Wednesday, 23 July 2008, at the Nicosia Hilton Hotel,
in Cyprus. His presence was dominant: wise and at the same time human;
his eyes were vibrant, his words were powerful and full of Christian
love. Below you will find the full, 1-hour interview with His Holiness.
– Vehapar Der, this is not your first time in Cyprus. What are your
impressions from our island?
In our Church Anthem, the official Church song, there is an
expression, a very beautiful expression about this island: this is a
very beautiful, unique island, and we cannot find a second one in the
whole world. That means that Cyprus has been very close to our hearts,
to our history, everybody knows about this island, because there is
a long-standing historical relationship between this island, Cyprus,
the Armenian Church, and the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia,
in particular. Therefore, we cherish everything that is related to
Cyprus, and that is why the struggle, the dreams, the problems, the
concerns of Gibros Island are ours at the same time. So, you see the
total identification between of our people and this island. Therefore,
when ever I come here, I feel myself at home.
As you know, there are lots of affinities, similarities, commonalities
between our Churches and our two people. And during my visit yesterday
[to the President, the Speaker and the Archbishop], I once again
reminded this, looking back to history, but at the same time I
emphasised the importance of people, the solidarity, the fellowship,
the commonality, the common values that exist between our Churches
and our two people.
– Have you found something that has changed since your last visit?
Well, in terms of change, this country is in a very good progress. I am
not an economist, but as far as I see, the country is flourishing. The
people are very happy, you look around yourself and you see joy,
happiness, good tradition. The people like enjoying life in its
fullness. This is a country of culture; this is a country of sense
of tradition. You see Mediterranean characteristics. So, I see that
the country is progressing and now that a renewed attention is being
given to the reunification of this country, I hope that things will
move forward, it’s according to the wish of the people.
– The political and religious leadership of Cyprus have changed since
your last visit. Do you think itis better this way? Do you think the
previous administration was better?
Well, I cannot make a comparison about this matter. These are elected
people by the people, the C hurch leaders and the political leaders. I
met them as I said; I had a very interesting conversation with the
President of the Republic. He is really committed to this process of
reunification, and he is serious. And he told me, and in fact he did
the same publicly, that he is going to continue, committedly, this
process of reunification. But you see when you reunify two things,
you need also the others committed, you cannot do that alone. There
should be commitment from both sides.
– And the President of the Parliament [Marios Garoyian] is half
Well, the President of the Parliament is a charming young man (laughs)!
We’re proud that he is Armenian, he is of Armenian origin, and he
is conscious of that, but at the same time we are all Cypriots in
First of all, there are Cypriots of Armenian, of Greek, of Latin
or of Maronite origin, but what counts is the common denominator
that brings the people together in this country, they are all
Cypriots. That is what we need today in different societies, for
instance in Lebanon. In these societies, where you have diversities,
we need to preserve the diversities. But, at the same time, we need
to strengthen the unity of the society, of the community: this is
what I call unity in diversity and diversity in unity. And in the
world today, this globalised world, we need each other, we need to
accept each other, we ne ed to respect each other. The way we are,
and not the way we want the others to become.
So, diversity is very important. In this country you have different
communities living together as one community, as one society. I’m
very happy to see that our people in this country are very much
integrated to the fabric of the society. And they participate fully,
and actively, and responsibly in the total life of the society, in
all spheres of the society, including the political sphere. And I was
very happy to hear from the President good things about the Armenians,
from the Speaker and also from the Archbishop.
– In my opinion, and in many Cypriots’ opinion, the Armenians are
the most "beloved" of the three religious groups.
Well, we are faithful to the countries that we are, not only in Cyprus,
in all countries. And we do our utmost, in terms of bringing our active
participation in the progress, in the building of the society. You
see the building society, the building nation, the building community,
it’s a must!
– Vehapar Der, as you must already know, two Armenian Churches
and one Armenian Monastery have been occupied for 34 years now, by
Turkey. And, unlike other denominations, the Armenians cannot hold
masses in the north.
Have you acted upon this injustice?
Yes! Well, on several occasions, in respect to this situation, the
reconstruction of the churches, renovatio n of the churches, using
of the churches… Whatever is related to the Church, I express my
concern with the government here, with the UNESCO, with the United
Nations. You see, it is vitally important that the occupying power,
the forces there, preserve the sacredness of religious sites.
– But are they taking it seriously? I mean the last time, and it
was the only time, they were able to visit Magaravank, Archbishop
Varoujan had to appear in civilian clothes, he couldn’t even go with
his church clothes…
You see, I am not here. I really cannot go beyond what I said, because
I don’t know the details. But one thing I know, and it is my firm
expectation that in this kind of situation the occupying forces,
the governments, the religions, organisations, must respect and
preserve the integrity, the identity and the sacredness of religious
sites. I think it is important, and as far as I know this is part of
the international Law and the human rights.
– Coming to a second question on that. The UN.D.P. (United Nations
Development Programme) plans on restoring Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church in
Victoria str. (Nicosia). However, they haven’t made another provision
for the church of Ganchvor in Famagusta, or Magaravank. And Magaravank,
unfortunately, is falling into pieces. Does your Holiness plan on
asking the restoration of these churches?
Of course! I think it’s a question of princi ple. I think all these
churches must be restored, not just Armenian churches as a matter of
fact! All the churches must be restored. And, reciprocally, I don’t
know if there are mosques in this part of Cyprus, the government
should do the same.
– We preserve them…
Well, I’m not only referring to the Turkish part, this is an
international Law, and we must respect international Law, and as I
said before particularly for the religious sites, or the sites which
are of historical, of archaeological value, I think they have to
respect that, they have to restore them.
– For some years now, there has been some controversy over
Parekordzagan’s role in the closure of the Melkonian. Does your
Holiness realistically believe that the Melkonian will be able to open
to accept Diasporan Armenians? And, if so, how can we achieve this?
Let me say, in terms of principle, when an Armenian school is closed,
that’s not a source of joy: it’s a source of sorrow. Because for
us school is not only the centre of education, but the centre of
religious, spiritual, Armenian formation. I consider the role of the
school in terms of not just intellectual, but spiritual, cultural
formation. And this school has played a pivotal role in this respect
in the course of four or five decades, as far as I know.
– Seventy nine years…
Yes. I mean really, what happe ned with this school generates feelings
of sadness and sorrow into our community, in Diaspora in general,
and in our community here in Cyprus in particular.
– And it was the only Western Armenian boarding school; not just
Exactly, and probably we need to discuss this matter with the board
of the school, to identify the reasons, the major factors which led
them to cause this. Looking as an outsider, really that created some
feelings of sadness.
– Do you realistically believe that the school will once again open?
You see, I am not in a position to say yes or no. But one thing I
want to tell you: that for our community here, we need a Secondary
school. It could be this school or some other school. Because we are
a community, we have three Primary schools, in Larnaca, Limassol
and Nicosia, so that is why we also need a Secondary school for
this community, and also for some children coming from the former
U.S.S.R. countries. Therefore, I believe that this community needs to
see a Secondary school. It could be this school or some other school.
– In fact, Your Holiness, the majority of the students was
Diasporan. They were not Gibrahayer; they were Diasporan, which is
– Vehapar Der, what are the relations of the Catholicosate in Cilicia
and the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Cyprus?
Well, we have always had very fraternal relations with the Church
As I told you earlier, our relations go back to history, during
the Cilician period. If you look at history, you will identify this
relationship between Cilicia and Cyprus almost in all areas of life,
including the Church. We continue this relationship, and now I can tell
you we have a very good relationship, we are collaborating bilaterally,
within the context of the Middle East Council of Churches, within
the framework of Oriental-Eastern Orthodox theological relations,
and within the sphere of the World Council of Churches. So, there are
different structures, frameworks where we are together, collaborating,
reflecting together, working together. In addition to all these
contacts, we have also bilateral relationship and collaboration.
– Now that the theological dialogue has been concluded between the
Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox Churches…
You said concluded?
– Yes, I was told it was concluded. Does your Holiness believe that
full communion can be reached in the foreseeable future between them?
Well, let me first of all tell you that the word "concluded" is not
the right word to use in that respect, because that’s not the actual
reality. Let me go back to history, because I happen to be one of
the initiators of this dialogue…
– I have read your biography. I have that brochure you issued.
Good (laughs)! So, I happen to be one of the init iators, early in
the 80s, when I was a Bishop. Together with some other Bishops and
theologians, we started this process. And we had four or five major
meetings, and in these meetings we came up with a joint communiquÃ© and
declarations, where we tried to identify our commonalities, but at the
same time to point out, or single out, the existing differences. Now,
we came to realise, after 15 centuries of controversies, of isolation,
mutual accusation, and division, that the core of our Theology, the
core of what we are in terms of Orthodoxy, we are not different! We
share common Orthodox tradition, common Christology, common values,
common visions. Well, due to different historical reasons and
– I know. The Armenians were fighting in Avarayr; they were unable
Exactly, there are some differences in terms of terminology used
to formulate the Christology of the Council of Chalcedon. This
means that, through this bilateral theological dialogue, we have
made a significant achievement, really a breakthrough. Now, this
process is not concluded. What we need is first to continue this
process. Secondly, we need to take the findings of this theological
dialogue to the Churches, to the Synods, for their approval, and to the
people. The Church is the people! I am not the Church! The Church is
not the Synod: the Church is the people of God. And particularly with
the Orthodox Churches,=2 0the sense of being the people of the Church
is at the centre of our ecclesiology, of our same understanding. The
people must have an important say in the Church matters, because this
is their Church.
Therefore, I think that in such matters which are very important,
we need to generate a kind of process, by which the people, for the
Church is the people of God, its ‘pleroma’ – a Greek word -, are
kept involved in this process, by appropriating the findings of this
bilateral dialogue. This should be a sort of people-oriented unity. I
think this is very important: not the reconciliation of the people,
not a theological unity in the strict sense of the word, but a kind
of unity by which people can associate themselves, by participating
in this process.
Therefore, in conclusion, I would like to underscore the crucial
importance of this process, and I believe that this process must
continue. Last year, the Ecumenical Patriarch sent a representative
to Antelias, our headquarters, to discuss with me the possibilities
of resuming this process.
And I believe that we should do that. The Eastern-Oriental Churches
must continue this process, which I consider very important.
– I am aware of your involvement with the World Council of Churches,
and the Inter-Religious Dialogue. What are your experiences from
this valuable participation? And, can such a dialogue give peace to
countries with turbulence and=2 0violence originating from ethnic
and/or religious differences?
You mean Inter-religious dialogue?
We are living in a different world, a world characterised by
this aggressive globalisation. Globalisation is not a theoretical
or a conceptual notion: it’s a fact of life, it’s an existential
reality. You see, we are invaded by globalisation in different ways,
by different form, by different faces, the values of globalisation,
the way of life, the system, the ideology of globalisation. This is
the world of today! And globalisation has created a situation of where
things are so much inter-connected. We are living in an inter-dependent
world. Isolation doesn’t exist; it should not have any place in the
vocabulary of this world, because we are living together. Whoever,
whatever we are, and wherever we are, we are inter-connected!
– We have the mobile phone, the Internet, the TV…
Exactly! We are inter-connected. And in order to be part of this
world, you have to be on-line (laughs)! If you’re not on-line, you
don’t belong to this world. Now, in this world, the religions cannot
stay aloof, detached from the realities of this world. They must
come together, they must reflect together, they must act together,
they must work together, as far as possible. We are neighbours: we
are no more strangers. And I am not speaking about the geographic
neighbours. Even geographically we20are neighbours, because the world
has become a small world, a global village as they say.
Now, what concerns religion, I think we need to stress a few things
about religion. Some people say that religion is in crisis: I don’t
believe so. Some people say that religion is the cause of crisis:
I don’t believe so. Let me say why. Religion today has assumed
an aggressive way, I would say a very dominant public role. All
religions. Religion has become an omnipresent reality, you find
religion at all levels, in all spheres of the society, including the
political. I am stating a fact without an interpretation, without
passing any judgement. This is the reality.
Secondly, I don’t believe as I said that religion is the cause
of any conflicts, of terrorism, or of violence. No, by its very
nature religion is a source of peace, it’s a source of tolerance,
it’s a source of love. Unfortunately, religion is exploited for
non-religious purposes. This is what I call the misuse and abuse of
religion, and here is the problem.
And I think we have to be very careful about this. First of all,
the religious leaders should be very careful about this. I think
we need to preserve the integrity, the identity and the vocation of
religion. So, I think that these are two very important problems.
Therefore, I believe that religions must work, collaborate together,
as far as possible. We have different values; we have different
self-understanding; and we have no respect to each other, the way
we are. We have different perceptions of truth; we have different
traditions; but we should understand each other.
Dialogue generates a greater and a correct understanding to each other.
Dialogue brings us closer to each other. By identifying what unites
us and what divides us, we have to strengthen what unites us, but
we have to understand and try to bridge the gap that exists between
Always preserving the identity of each religion.
– United in diversity…
Yes. Now, today we are facing tremendous problems and challenges:
the question of violence, the question of terrorism, the question
of corruption, the question of injustice, inequality, poverty,
ignorance. These are world problems, and these should also become
the problems of the religions.
Because in the world today, where we are inter-connected, I cannot
say any more "this is your problem": your problem is my problem. So,
in this way I believe that the religions should come together, and
they have established an agenda, and I believe there are a lot they
can do, and they must do, together.
– In this context, Your Holiness, is there a possibility for Armenians
and Turks to peacefully co-exist, regardless of their blood-stained
Well, I’ll tell you. The people of Turkey are not our enemy. We don’t
ha ve enemies in this world, and we don’t want to have enemies in
this world. But we have a problem. And it is critically important that
this problem is solved. We cannot ignore the past, we cannot deny our
history, and we cannot forget the truth, undermine the truth. There
is a problem, and this problem is not an ordinary problem, namely
the Genocide: it’s deeply rooted in the common consciousness of our
people. It’s not a question of its relation for us; it’s a part of
history. It’s not fiction; it’s a fact of history.
You see, when people come and visit me in Antelias, and they go
and see the Martyrs’ Chapel, they say "Where did the relics of the
martyrs come from"? Well, you see, I’m the Catholicos of Cilicia,
what am I doing in Lebanon? Or, where did I come from? What about
this Armenian Diaspora, this dispersed Armenian reality? That was an
imposed reality. We did not choose to become the Diaspora, this was
an imposed reality. You see, I am out of my See in Cilicia, and my
people are dispersed all around the world.
I mean, these are not imagination, these are related to concrete facts
of history. The fact is that the Genocide is a fact of history. And
I believe that Turkey should sit down, with its history, with its
past. I don’t think you must deal with this kind of matters in a
diplomatic way, I don’t think we should politicise it. Something has
happened. We shouldn’t blame them: I’m not saying that this generation
did that; their forefathers did that, within a certain context of
history, for specific political reasons of that time. I believe that
Turkey should reconcile with its past. This is our expectation, and
in fact it’s a legitimate expectation that Turkey formally accepts
the Armenian Genocide.
First the confession. As Christians, we believe that in order to seek
to get pardoned, you need to confess your sins; then follows the
pardon, and the process of reconciliation. This is not my personal
interpretation or expectation: this is a clear and a firm expectation
of our people.
– Finally, if you would please send a message…
– To the great Gibrahayer community, because I consider this community
to be great.
(laughs). Well, you see, whenever I visit our communities, I always
remind them certain things which are of crucial importance to their
The first thing is unity. Unity is a source of strength. I think we
should respect, as a community, the different views, perspectives,
approaches, attitudes that we may have, the different organisations
working in our community. But on matters pertaining to our community
as a whole, to our Church, to our nation, we must transcend the
divergences that we may have, to articulate, to express clearly our
vi ew. This is absolutely important. I always demand that, as a kind
of a demand; this is my demand from our communities.
Secondly, I think the Church for us has not been just a spiritual
centre. It has played I would say an all-embracing role.
– I am aware of that. It’s the oldest Church in the world…
Yes… An all-embracing role, and even at the absence of the political
power, the Armenian Church has also played a political role. The
Church is a centre of reality with a major role in the life of our
people. Therefore, all Armenians must identify themselves with the
Church, not emotionally, but through active participation in the life
and the mission of the Church. This is my expectation from all members
of our community. In fact, yesterday when I had a meeting with the
Committee of the Prelacy and the Archbishop, they referred to that,
saying that we need to encourage our people to participate in all
activities in the life of our Church, especially young people.
– Unfortunately young people don’t go to church.
Exactly. And in fact, you said it, this is my third point. The youth
have always had a particular place in my ministry. In different ways,
I always encourage, challenge young people to participate in the life
of our Church.
If you open our web site, you will find 10 or 12 dialogues that I had
with the youth. From time to time, I try to invite our youth all over
– The nor serount…
(Smiles). Exactly, to reflect on matters pertaining to their lives
and the present-day world. I think I am trying to be always in
dialogue with the youth. You see, dialogue with the youth is very
important. For instance, in two weeks time we are going to have an
international youth gathering in Lebanon.
– In Antelias?
In Antelias. I have invited the Representatives of the youth from our
Dioceses and the communities to come together and the theme of this
conference is "The challenges the Armenian youth are facing today".
I will be in view of these great challenges that we are surrounded
How, as Armenian youth, we have to respond to these challenges. By
preserving our identity, but at the same time being an integral part
of the societies in which we live.
So, I consider the youth a vital element of our Church and the
For me, the youth do not belong to the future: they belong to the
present; they are part of our present day. They bring vitality to
other people. We need to encourage the youth; we need to give space
to the youth. We cannot erect walls around us. By telling the youth
"you belong to the future" or by marginalising them, this is the source
of what I consider very critical for the progress of the Church and
the community. So, this is my third message.
My fourth message has two dimensions. The one dimension is that,
as I repeatedly referred to, we must be active participants in the
building of the societies in which we live, and we are part of the
societies. In Lebanon, we’re Lebanese, here we’re Cypriots, in Syria
we are Syrians, in America we’re Americans.
This is very important. But, at the same time, we have our homeland.
– If I’m right, you mean Hayastan?
Hayastan. We must also bring our contribution to our nation building
process of Armenia. These two dimensions I take together. They are
– I would expect such an answer from the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin…
(laughs) You know him?
– No, I don’t know him, but you said about Hayastan, and that’s
something that the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin would say…
(laughs) Ok. I consider these two dimensions inter-connected. I think
that together, because as I said, the faithfulness of the society,
the identification with the country in which we live is very important,
but at the same time to our homeland, we cannot forget our roots. So,
this is how I feel, and this is in fact my fourth message.
And my fifth message would be renewal. The world is in constant, in
radical and rapid change. We must keep pace with the wind of change
of times, we must respond to the new realities, to the new challenges
of the times. We cannot organise ourselves, liv e our lives in a
self-contained, self-centred, self-closed way. We must open ourselves.
– Your Holiness, do you understand Latin?
– The Latins used to say "tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis",
it means "the times are changing, and we change with them".
Exactly, but change not for the sake of change. I don’t like the word
"change", I use two words: "renewal" and "transformation". And this
is what we need, as a Church; this is what we need, as a community.
The title of my last book was "For a Church beyond its walls", that
also goes for our community. We cannot live in a self-contained
This will lead us to stagnation. We need to go beyond ourselves. I
use the word "beyond". You see, there are two words which I like to
use, and if you look at my books these words are repeatedly used;
these are not just words, but these point to the way I look at our
communities and the Church.
The first word is "beyond", and the second word is "forwards". Looking
forwards, going beyond. By creating new spaces; by opening ourselves
to new horizons.
Now, I am going to publish, it’s in process, another book in French,
and the title of that book would be "For the transformation of the
role". The word I use is "transformation", and we must be part of
it. So, the renewal, the transformation, going out of ourselves,
preserving what we are in terms of our identity, by engaging in
dialogue with the others, respecting the others. This is how I see it,
and this is my last message.
– Shad shnorhagal em Vahapar Der (Thank you very much Your Holiness).