ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Armenia: One Year After the Earthquake

The latest news from Armenia as its people rebuild their lives and their country.

Though the earthquake that struck Armenia Dec. 7, 1988, is no longer front-page news or the lead story on television nightly news programs, it is still the dominant fact of life for the survivors. Many physical wounds have been healed, many buildings restored or rebuilt, but the spiritual and psychological damage are not so easily or quickly mended.

“This population has suffered a tremendous psychological trauma,” said Dr. Giorgio Rivolta, a psychiatrist temporarily working in Spitak. “Everyone in this city lost someone in the quake. There is a lot of depression, psychosomatic diseases, paranoid reactions, insomnia. It is difficult enough to recover from such a trauma, but continuing to live like this makes it much worse.”

But there is hope.

The earthquake and its aftermath have stunned many survivors into a new sense of their national identity. The Armenian tricolor now flies atop many buildings next to the two colors of the official flag of Soviet Armenia. Nationalist revolutionary songs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be heard throughout the countryside and huge crowds gathered May 28 to celebrate the proclamation of Armenian republic independence.

Likewise, the earthquake seems to have brought many Armenians to rediscover and reassess their Christian roots. Baptisms are on the rise, texts of Armenian spiritual classics are circulating among intellectuals and a new movement called “baregordzakan,” which means “assistance” or “charity,” is spreading throughout the country. The fraternity which consists of about 700 members, mostly young college students, was formed to meet the needs of the workers on strike for months to protest the killing of Armenians in Karabaghk, and to seek greater freedom. The organization, which draws inspiration from the ancient Armenian Christian faith and the scriptures, is recognized by the Government and held in esteem by the people.

When Khacik Stanboltzian, one of Baregordzakan’s leaders, was released from a Soviet prison and brought back to Armenia, cheering crowds lined the road from the Armenian border all the way to the capital. He was imprisoned for “anti-Soviet propaganda” along with other Armenian intellectuals. Once inside the city, he told a crowd of several hundred thousand who had gathered to greet him of the power of Christian love to transform the world.

Baregordzakan’s members call one another “brother” and “sister,” gather in one another’s homes to pray and are preparing a new translation of the Bible into modern Armenian. Some members are reportedly being considered as possible candidates for the priesthood in the Apostolic Church.

Though Catholics of the Armenian rite have been without a priest since the 1920’s, they now worship freely and openly in Leninakan. The townspeople maintain the church buildings with their own money.

One year after the earthquake, network television cameras are focused on other disasters and newspapers of record rarely report on the day-to-day struggle the Armenians undergo to dig themselves out of the depression and havoc the earthquake wrought.

But the Armenians, with the help of organizations and even entire nations (The Republic of Italy is virtually rebuilding Spitak, a city of 20,000 that was leveled.), once again are witnesses to the indestructibility of the human spirit and the theological virtue of hope.

This report was compiled by Catholic Near East staff.

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