ARMENIAN CHURCH, SURVIVOR OF THE AGES, FACES MODERN HURDLES
New York Times
Oct 4 2013
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
ECHMIADZIN, Armenia – In this ancient city, tucked in a valley that
has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, King Tiridates III
converted to Christianity and declared Armenia to be the world’s
first Christian state. The year was 301, more than a decade before
the Emperor Constantine put Rome on a similar path.
Since then, the Armenian Apostolic Church, which still has its main
cathedral here, has survived conquest and dispersion, genocide and
government-imposed atheism during the years Armenia was part of the
Soviet Union. It also endured centuries of internal rancor, including
a split in 1441 that led to the establishment of a rival leadership
now based in Lebanon.
As church leaders gathered here last week for a rare bishops’
conference, they seemed to be ready to put at least some of those
differences aside as they confronted a new set of challenges:
entrenched secularism at home, assimilation of followers in the large
Armenian diaspora abroad and general disaffection with organized
“The church is in dire need of renewal,” Catholicos Aram I, the leader
of the Lebanon-based faction of the church, said in an interview as he
strolled across the campus here of the Mother See. “And by renewal,
I mean the church has to be responsive to the needs and expectations
of the people.”
He added, “The church has to respond to the challenges of the
Exactly how the church plans to do that remains elusive, however, and
some skeptics said the split within the church leadership remained
as divisive as ever, while the number of people regularly attending
church has dwindled.
The church has more than nine million adherents worldwide, most
outside Armenia. Statistics show that more than 98 percent of Armenians
consider themselves Christians, but only 8 percent said they attended
services at least once a week – data that suggest the church is still
struggling to overcome the legacy of forced atheism 23 years after
There have also been a number of recent controversies, including the
resignation of the head of the church in France, Archbishop Norvan
Zakarian, in a dispute over demands by the church leadership to
reinstate a priest facing criminal assault charges.
“The whole situation of the division of the Armenian church is not
resolved,” said one Western-based archbishop who asked not to be
identified to avoid exacerbating tensions. “Yes, this is a conclave,
but the church is not unified.”
Aram acknowledged that he claimed the same basic title as Catholicos
Karekin II, the church leader based in Echmiadzin, who also has
the added designation of supreme patriarch of all Armenians. Still,
Aram denied any fissure.
“We don’t have any division in the Armenian church,” he said. “We are
one church. We are one people. We are one nation. We are one mission.
We have two Catholicoi, and we are rich – this is an expression of
the richness of the church.”
For his part, Karekin told his audience of 62 bishops in black hoods
and robes with purple accents, who had come from as far away as
Australia and Latin America, that it was time to come together.
“All these controversies and administrative divisions did not allow
carrying out unified reforms,” Karekin said. “We are an entire century
behind the opportunity to modernize the church.”
He added, “The time has come to consolidate all forces.”
To minimize the prospect of sharp disagreements at the conference,
a tight agenda was adopted: creating universal practices for baptisms
and confirmations, discussing the canonization of victims of the
1915 Armenian genocide in recognition of the 100th anniversary,
and planning another conference next year.
In an apparent bid to generate positive publicity around the bishops’
conference, church officials billed it as the first synod of its
kind in nearly 600 years – a bit of snappy marketing that was widely
repeated by the Armenian news media and in a speech by President
Serzh Sargsyan during the opening ceremony.
“Now, we are witnessing the epoch-making event indeed,” Mr. Sargsyan
said. “For centuries, due to different circumstances, and particularly
in the last six centuries, it was not possible to invite a bishops’
synod of the Armenian Church.”
Experts, however, said that was not quite true.
At the event nearly 600 years ago, a conclave in Echmiadzin in 1441,
church leaders decided to move the headquarters back here from Sis,
in what is now Turkey, where the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia had been
conquered by Egyptian Mamluks.
A new leader, Kirako Virapetsy, was elected to replace Catholicos
Gregory IX, who was ill and remained in Sis. But when Gregory died,
officials in Sis elected their own replacement.
“The year 1441 is being mentioned here and there as if to give it more
importance and significance,” said Hratch Tchilingirian, an expert
on the church who teaches at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute.
Mr. Tchilingirian said a bishops’ synod was held here in 1969.
Armenian clerics from the United States attended, even though it was
during the cold war, while those from Lebanon refused to attend.
He said that last week’s agenda seemed to ignore tough issues in
favor of safe topics. For example, before the 75th anniversary of
the genocide, both branches of the church issued statements about
Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, the director of ecumenical and foreign
relations at the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said
that reaching an agreement to canonize victims – the first saints
designated by the church since the 1500s – was a top priority.
“We, the bishops and archbishops living today, are descendants of
Armenian genocide,” Archbishop Shirvanian said.
“All of us are survivors. That’s the driving spirit behind this
Whatever the agenda, Echmiadzin, which is also called by its original
name, Vagharshapat, remains at the center of Armenian spiritual life.
It is about 12 miles west of the capital, Yerevan, between the biblical
mountains of Ararat and Aragats. Priests in black robes can often be
seen strolling through downtown.
The conversion of Tiridates III in 301, a decade before the Roman
emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, is credited to St. Gregory
the Illuminator, the patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Living in Vagharshapat, the capital of Armenia at the time, Gregory
reportedly had a vision. As the faithful tell it, the skies parted
and a ray of light blazed down, surrounding a group of angels and
a man – Jesus – who struck the ground with a golden hammer and made
an altar-shaped structure appear amid a column of fire with a cross
shining above it.
It was on that spot that Gregory oversaw construction of the Cathedral
of Echmiadzin – meaning, “Jesus Christ, the only begotten, descended.”
From: A. Papazian