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A New Start for Armenia’s Catholics

The church resurfaces after some 70 years of oppression

St. Prkitch (“Savior”) Church stands atop a hill in the Armenian village of Dzithankov, and for years it has served as both a house of worship and a monument of demarcation.

“If you go to the left, you’ll find the Armenians,” explained a villager. “To the right are the Franks.”

The villager’s directions speak not only of a geographic divide, but a lingering theological and cultural divide that has survived despite 70 years of Communism.

In Dzithankov, Arevik, Lanchik and Panik – villages with large Catholic populations – there was a time when Armenian Catholic (“Franks”) and Armenian Apostolic Christians (“Armenians”) hardly mixed.

The two share the same rites and traditions, but Armenian Catholics maintain full communion with the Church of Rome. (The term Franks derives from the influence of French Catholic missionaries.)

In Arevik, 83-year-old Yeproxia Grigorian remembers when a “mixed marriage” would have caused scandal. It was practically forbidden for Franks to integrate with Armenians. But by the time her daughter Julietta married, only hardliners might have objected to a husband from the Armenian Apostolic Church, an ancient church to which 95 percent of Armenians belong.

Julietta married when most churches were shuttered by the Communists. In those days, believers were forced to conceal their faith. Subtleties and theological differences no longer seemed important.

“When I was a student, I always had faith,” Julietta, 54, said. “When I was going to exams, I always prayed and asked God for help. But I didn’t say the prayers out loud.”

Julietta’s 13-year-old daughter, Armineh, is making up for the church-going opportunities denied her mother and her grandmother. And Armineh’s generation has only their elders’ recollections to connect them to the time when the church was divided by labels and lifestyles, even in a village of only several hundred.

“There was a time,” Julietta said, “when there was a big difference between Franks and Armenians. But there is one God.”

For the Catholic and Apostolic Christians of Dzithankov that one God is worshiped in St. Prkitch Church, which, since Armenia achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, both communities share.

Anahit Harutunan, 59, was born in Geghard, a village that grew around an ancient monastery 20 miles west of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. Her father belonged to the Communist Party and headed the local collective farm. Her mother, a devout Armenian Catholic, bridled at the suppression of the church by her husband’s party.

Anahit’s mother used to gather her 10 children for prayers in the secrecy of their home. In 1952, in defiance of the law, she had all her children baptized. Anahit’s father reluctantly agreed to the baptisms, though he dared not attend the illicit liturgy.

The experiences of Anahit and her family are typical of Armenian Catholics of her generation. “For years, there were no overt signs of Catholicism,” said Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, Apostolic Nuncio to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. “The Soviets suppressed the Armenian Catholic Church completely.”

Under the Communists, and particularly under Josef Stalin, all religions in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic were vigorously suppressed. Eventually, some accommodations were made with the Armenian Apostolic Church. But Armenian Catholics – which today number 220,000 of Armenia’s 2.9 million citizens – were not given the same allowances.

Ruzanna Amiraghian, 27, was reared during a more tolerant period of Communist rule, but she grew up with the horrible tales of her forebears.

The family matriarch, Ruzanna’s great-grandmother, Hripsime Avakaian, had two sons. One, Hovannes, entered the seminary and became a priest; the other, Ashot, joined the Communist Party. Mrs. Avakaian arranged for her son, Hovannes, to baptize secretly her grandchildren in one of the churches closed by the Communists. On the way to the church, however, Ashot intervened, saying it would put the family in jeopardy.

A few years later, Father Hovannes was arrested. He disappeared and, for more than 60 years, the family knew nothing of his fate. But 10 years ago, a family member gained access to an archive previously sealed. The records revealed Father Hovannes was executed the same day he was arrested.

Under such conditions – closed churches, disappearing priests, forbidden religious practice – it is no wonder faith was tested. What is surprising is how many Armenian Catholics maintained it even while it was outlawed.

Back in Dzithankov, to the right of St. Prkitch’s, lives Ani Petrosian, 22, a nonbaptized catechist who laughs when a friend calls her a Frank.

Bright faced and pleased for the chance to discuss her church, Ani accepted the challenge of a question that, for others in these parts, would be answered passively if considered.

What are the differences between the Armenian Catholic and the Armenian Apostolic churches?

“Well, from what I know, the Armenians celebrate Christmas on 6 January and we celebrate it on 25 December,” she said. “Oh, and Trndez for them is 13 February and for us it is 2 February.”

The answer may not satisfy theologians of either church, but in villages where theological nuances do not take priority over hauling water and collecting cow dung for fuel, the definition seems to work.

Ani’s mention of Trndez reveals an important point about Armenians’ Christian faith: Theirs is an ancient faith grafted to the trunk of an even older culture.

Trndez, or Tyarendarach (literally, “to the Lord”), falls 40 days after Christmas and marks the day when Christ was presented in the Temple (and the day on which Mary would have been required to present herself for purification according to Jewish law). Known as the feast of the Presentation in the West, Trndez coincides with the ancient Armenian pagan holiday of Lupercalia, a day once set aside for the god of fertility. And on that day throughout Armenia, fires are made in the yards of villages such as Dzithankov (even on sidewalks in Yerevan). Engaged couples and children, and generally anyone feeling playful, jump over the fire, believing the fire will purify.

For young believers such as Ani, especially those from villages that lie under the shadow of Mount Ararat, the specifics of what they practice seem hardly as important as the practice itself.

Each Saturday Ani and her sister, 21-year-old Anna, walk to the church on the hill to attend the Catholic liturgy. Then, on Monday, they are back again. Graduates of the Gyumri State Pedagogical Institute, Ani and Anna teach catechism to an average of 30 young people each week.

While most churches, particularly in the West, struggle to appeal to the young, this village outpost boasts a mini-revival. “In our church, the youth are more active,” Ani said.

There may be some practical reasons for this. Except for the common practice of courtyard conversation or the ubiquitous games of nardi (a board game similar to backgammon), village youth have little to entertain them. As for the elderly, well, Ani said, “it’s difficult for them to climb the hill.”

Ani blushed when asked if she was baptized in St. Prkitch’s. She shyly revealed that, though preparing others for baptism, she herself has not made her public profession. “I am waiting for my kavor to come back from Russia,” Ani said. It is another explanation that requires some intimacy with this culture.

Ani is waiting for the return of the person whom her parents chose at her birth to be her spiritual guide, her moral overseer, her sort of meaning-of-life troubleshooter – her godfather.

It may be a long wait. For tens of thousands throughout Armenia, “he works in Russia” has become code for “he won’t be coming back.”

Industrialized by the Soviets to complement the industries of other Soviet republics, Armenia’s economy collapsed after the Soviet Union imploded and Armenia achieved independence. Tens of thousands of men have since left for jobs in Russia. Most never return. Tens of thousands of wives effectively became widows and tens of thousands of children, fatherless. It is a condition that has tempered somewhat, but it still shows no sign of reversing.

The first cracks in the Soviet suppression of the Armenian Catholic Church appeared after a devastating earthquake in 1988 shook northwestern Armenia, the very area of Catholic concentration. The cities of Spitak and Gyumri (then called Leninaken) were nearly flattened. Some 25,000 Armenians were killed and another 500,000 made homeless. The United Nations estimated economic losses at $14.2 billion (slightly more than Armenia’s current gross domestic product).

But the earthquake also led to a rush of international aid, ecumenical cooperation within Armenia and exposure of a corrupt Communist bureaucracy. “I remember working with Caritas Italy, trying to get funds for relief efforts,” said Archbishop Gugerotti. ”We were rebuffed by the local authorities. But one day, in my native city of Verona, where I was a priest at the time, a journalist approached me. Italian newspapers were contributing to the relief effort, rebuilding schools, and they wanted to know if we wanted to direct aid through them.

“I went with the journalists to Armenia,” the archbishop continued. “In one village, the people asked me if I was Catholic, and I said yes.”

The Catholic villagers all wore rosaries, Archbishop Gugerotti said, though the rosary was not part of the Armenian tradition. The villagers retrieved the keys to the church, which had been closed for decades. Then-Father Gugerotti was invited to a clandestine service. “There was no priest, no Eucharist, just an old man leading everyone in singing psalms.” Inside the church, there were pictures of the Last Supper, the Virgin Mary and other traditional Catholic images. “This is how they kept their faith alive, in bits and pieces. When I returned to Italy, the pope wanted to hear about my trip. He was very moved.”

In October 1991, Redemptoris Mater Hospital, a gift from the pope built with funds from Caritas Italy and CNEWA, opened in the northwestern village of Ashotzk. CNEWA Secretary General Msgr. Robert L. Stern attended the dedication ceremony, which coincided with the reestablishment of the Armenian Catholic Church. The newly appointed ordinary for Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe, Archbishop Nerses Der Nersessian, celebrated his first public liturgy, dedicating the hospital and its small chapel.

With independence and the reestablishment of the Armenian Catholic Church, Armenia’s Catholics rejoiced in their newfound freedoms. Ruzanna Amiraghian, her mother and her sister, for example, were baptized, freely and openly, a rite denied their forebears.Initially, the reintroduction of official liturgical practices and the abandonment of the many ad hoc arrangements that had emerged in the underground priestless church made for some comical moments.

“I remember I attended one church service, not long after [Armenian] independence,” Archbishop Gugerotti said. “Parishioners were smoking and wearing hats inside the church, and they were talking throughout the liturgy, but of course they didn’t know any better. Finally, the priest yelled, ’You’ve kept silent for 70 years, can’t you keep silent for one more hour!’ ”

The church faces more serious difficulties than smoking and chatting in church. “Priestly formation is the main challenge,” Archbishop Gugerotti said. Currently, there are only four Catholic priests in Armenia and another four serving Armenian Catholic communities in Georgia. In 1994, a minor seminary opened in Gyumri from which priests should eventually be ordained.

“But it’s difficult for many of them to complete their studies, for the seminary tradition is foreign to them now,” the archbishop said. “We can import Armenian Catholic priests from the diaspora, but they speak a different dialect. In fact, many speak Arabic as their first language. It’s important to have priests come from the community.”

She would probably not welcome such a title, but Sister Arousiag Sajonian is, arguably, the “face of Catholicism” in Armenia.

Founder and director of Our Lady of Armenia Boghossian Educational Center and superior of her community in Gyumri, the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, she taught in the order’s respected academy near Philadelphia.

Today, she is the church’s unofficial ambassador to the dozens of international agencies that welcome a Western-trained and English-speaking liaison through whom they seek advice about the disbursement of aid.

Definitively Catholic but also ecumenical, she is a voice that speaks with conviction. “Our mission is not only to work for the Armenian Catholic Church,” she said, “but for Armenia.”

In Armenia, a considerable number of people, particularly the orphans taken in by the sisters, owe their improved lives to the sisters’ devotion. Many, too, have discovered their own spirituality through the sisters.

A summer camp run by the sisters in the resort village of Tzakadzhor drew some 800 children last year. A third did not even know how to make the Sign of the Cross when they first arrived.

But eventually 220 children requested to be baptized. (Significantly, 140 of those took place in the local Armenian Apostolic church, in keeping with Sister Arousiag’s ecumenism.) Six boys from the camp have now entered the seminary in Yerevan. Armenia’s Christians, Apostolic and Catholic, affirm that, through celebration and ritual, their common faith defines what it means to be Armenian.

Theirs is a faith and an identity that has survived war, dispersal, persecution, genocide and suppression. It is now a faith challenged by the wide doors of democracy, which today also swing freely for newcomers imported by the West, such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Evangelical Protestants.

“It’s been 15 years since independence and the Armenian Catholic Church is still at the beginning,” Archbishop Gugerotti said. But unfettered by communism, Armenia’s Catholics are increasingly hopeful about the future of their faith and their country.

John Hughes is a journalist based in Armenia. Armineh Johannes is a photojournalist based in Paris, France.

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