Ancient Armenia was located in present-day eastern Turkey and in bordering areas of the former Soviet Union and Iran. This country became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion when King Tiridates III was converted to the Christian faith by St. Gregory the Illuminator at the beginning of the 4th century. A cathedral was soon built at Etchmiadzin which to this day remains the center of the Armenian Church. It is widely believed that the monk St. Mesrob invented the Armenian alphabet around the year 404, making it possible for the Bible to be translated into that language.
In 506 an Armenian synod rejected the christological teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451), which no Armenian bishop had attended. At that time the Armenian Church was more concerned with countering the nestorianizing tendencies of the neighboring church in the Persian Empire.
Long a vulnerable buffer state between the hostile Roman and Persian empires, the ancient Armenian kingdom was destroyed in the 11th century. Many Armenians then fled to Cilicia (in south central Asia Minor), where a new Armenian kingdom was established. Here the Armenians had extensive contacts with the Latin Crusaders. Although this new kingdom also ceased to exist by the 14th century and the Armenian people were dispersed, they survived in spite of foreign domination. Their identity as a people centered on their language and their church.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Armenians in Turkey suffered a series of massacres and expulsions that led to the death of large numbers of them. It is widely believed that altogether between 1.5 and 2 million Armenians died in the genocide. The survivors fled to neighboring countries and to Istanbul.
Today the Armenian Apostolic Church is centered in the Republic of Armenia which declared its independence from the Soviet Union on September 23, 1991. The Holy See of Etchmiadzin, the ancient residence of the Armenian Catholicos, is near Yerevan, the capital. The collapse of communism has provided conditions for a renaissance of this ancient church in its homeland. New dioceses, parishes and seminaries have been opened, many new priests have been ordained, new organizations founded, religious periodicals published, and religious instruction introduced in the schools. But the church still does not have sufficient clergy, and feels threatened by the activity of other religious groups that are now free to function in the country.
The 2005 Armenian constitution provides for freedom of religion but also recognizes “the exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church as a national church in the spiritual life, development of the national culture and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” According to the 2011 census of Armenia, 92 percent of the population self-identified as belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are several other religious groups in the country, none of them exceeding 30,000 members.
The 1,700th anniversary of the acceptance of Christianity as Armenia’s state religion was celebrated in 2001 with great solemnity and included the consecration of a large new cathedral in Yerevan. Pope John Paul II, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow and All Russia, and many other prominent church leaders visited Armenia in the fall of that year.
The Armenian liturgy includes elements of the Syriac, Jerusalem, and Byzantine traditions. While a distinctive Armenian liturgical tradition was being formed in the 5th to the 7th centuries, there was strong liturgical influence from Syria and Jerusalem. Later there was a period of byzantinization, and finally, during the Middle Ages, many Latin usages were adopted.
The Catholicos of All Armenians in Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia, is recognized by all Armenian Orthodox as the spiritual head of the church. The Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin has jurisdiction over Armenians throughout the former USSR and much of the diaspora, including Iraq, India, Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. It includes about 5,000,000 faithful. In addition, the two Armenian Patriarchates are dependent in spiritual matters on Etchmiadzin. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem has its headquarters at St. James monastery in that city and is responsible for the holy places that belong to the Armenian Church. It includes the perhaps 25,000 Armenian faithful in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. Patriarch Nourhan Manougian of Jerusalem was born in 1948 and elected in 2013. The Patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul) has jurisdiction over Turkey and the Greek island of Crete. In 1914 this patriarchate included 12 archdioceses, 27 dioceses, and six monasteries with approximately 1,350,000 faithful. Today only the Patriarchate itself remains, with a flock of about 82,000. Patriarch Sahak II Mashalian was born in 1962 and elected in 2019.
There is also the Catholicosate of Cilicia, based in Antelias, Lebanon. It is in full communion with the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin but is administratively independent. It has jurisdiction in Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Iran, and Greece, and has about 800,000 members. Cilicia has had a history of tension with Etchmiadzin, and both maintain separate jurisdictions in North America, Greece and Syria. Delegations from the two Catholicosates have met to try to overcome those differences and strengthen the unity of the Armenian Church. Catholicos Aram I Keshishian (born 1947) was elected in 1995.
The Armenian Apostolic Church currently maintains five seminaries: Kevorkian Seminary in Etchmiadzin; Vazgenian Theological Seminary in Sevan, Armenia; the seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Bikfaya, Lebanon; St. James Seminary in Jerusalem; and St. Nersess Seminary in Armonk, New York, which is associated with St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in nearby Crestwood, New York.
The Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin has bishops throughout the diaspora. Bishop Hovakim Manukyan (27 Haven Green, London W5 2NZ) has pastoral care of the four Armenian parishes in the United Kingdom and one in Ireland. Bishop Haigazoun Najarian is Primate of Australia and New Zealand (Holy Resurrection Armenian Church, 10 Marquarie Street, PO Box 694, Chatswood NSW 2067). There are parishes in Sydney and Melbourne. In North America, the Eastern USA Diocese (St. Vartan’s Cathedral, 630 Second Avenue, New York, New York 10016) is headed by Bishop Daniel Findikyan, while Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of Los Angeles is Primate of the Western USA Diocese (3325 North Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank, California 91504). Altogether there are about 120 parishes in the USA. The Diocese of Canada (615 Stuart Avenue, Montréal, Québec H2V 3H2), which has twelve parishes, is under the pastoral care of Bishop Abgar Hovakimyan.
The Catholicosate of Cilicia also has two dioceses in the United States: the Prelacy of the Eastern United States is headed by Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian (138 East 39th Street, New York, New York 10016), and the Western Prelacy is administered by Bishop Torkom Donoyan (6252 Honolulu Ave., La Crescenta, California 91214). Altogether there are 34 parishes in the USA. The Prelacy of Canada, which has six parishes, is headed by Archbishop Papken Tcharian (3401 Olivar Asselin, Montreal, Quebec H4J 1L5).
Location: Armenia, large diaspora
Head: Catholicos Karekin II (born 1951, elected 1999)
Title: Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians
Residence: Etchmiadzin, Armenia