ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Armenia’s Golden Opportunity

The Armenian Apostolic Church has become a necessary force in preserving the identity of Armenia.

The midday arrival of a fruit vendor last summer seemed the only intrusion in the tranquil life of the Armenian village of Gosh, located about 96 miles north of the capital of Yerevan. The vendor parked his Soviet-era Lada in the middle of the village square. The backseat and trunk of the car were stuffed with fruit and vegetables and, within minutes of his arrival, he was busy weighing produce with a crude scale and bartering with the villagers.

“400 drams [just under U.S. $1] for two pounds of tomatoes?” complained one customer. “Would you sell them for 300 drams, or in exchange for some cheese?” asked another.

Watching this daily ritual from under the shade of trees, a group of elderly men looked at one another, exchanged remarks about the high cost of living in post-Soviet Armenia, and longed for the good old days of low-cost bread and guaranteed work.

Surrounded by lush greenery and grazing cows, Gosh is a sleepy Armenian village. Rows of sun-dried corn on the cob, strung from house to house, drape the village streets. Ducks and chickens loiter about. Children swing idly from metal bars. As with many villages in independent Armenia, the villagers live in relative isolation, their thoughts and concerns seemingly unlike those experienced by city dwellers. However, such is not the case.

“Our cathedral was closed by the Soviets in 1930,” an elderly-looking woman named Zarik said as I paused while wandering about the village’s 13th-century cathedral, which is commonly called Goshuvank, or the Cathedral of Gosh.

“For more than 30 years it served as a warehouse for products produced by thekolkhoz [collective farm],” she continued.

As she spoke, I thought about the adversities that had undoubtedly carved the deep wrinkles in her lovely face. As if she read my thoughts she told me about her family, who were exiled to Siberia in 1949.

“I was 10 years old when we were removed from our home in Gosh. For 22 days we traveled by train in a compartment packed with animals – it was a real nightmare. Just before we were permitted to return to Gosh in 1956, my mother died. Ever since, I have wanted to serve the church. Today I am proud to act like a guardian for our cathedral.”

Since Armenia’s declaration of independence on 23 September 1991, the role of the Armenian Apostolic Church – the preeminent church of the nation – has grown considerably.

“Preaching the Christian faith in theory is insufficient,” stated the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin I, when I met with him earlier this year.

“We have to relate the teachings of Christ to the everyday life of our people. We have to explain in practical terms the sacredness of life, the value of the human person and of honest work, the importance of respecting order, preserving nature and natural resources,” the Catholicos continued.

“We have to go to the people and not wait for them to come to the church. The clergy must meet the people in their homes and in their workshops, in the villages and in the cities.”

Among the Soviet system’s greatest failings were its assaults on the dignity of human life and the attempted destruction of the institution called to defend human life, the Christian Church.

“You have assumed responsibility for a nation that is gravely ill,” the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, told the President of the Russian Federation, Boris N. Yeltsin, in June 1991.

“Three generations were reared in conditions stripping them of the will and ability to work. People were first discouraged from spiritual labor, or prayer; then from the desire to discern truth independently; and finally, whether by accident or design, they were hampered from work.”

Although the village has a functioning parish, Gosh has no resident priest. A priest from a neighboring monastery sporadically visits the village to celebrate weddings, baptisms and other sacraments.

“The Holy See of Etchmiadzin has promised to send us a priest in the near Future.” Zarik said hopefully.

“I hope he will arrive soon, because Gosh had been influenced by the sects, who arrived some five or six years ago, she continued. Only a priest can save our village.”

On many occasions, the Catholicos has expressed his concern about the increasing number of proselytizing Western sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, that have flooded not only Armenia, but the traditionally Christian nations of Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine.

“Armenia is not a tabula rasa, or virgin state, for religious experimentation. The Christian faith has been the life of these people for the past 17 centuries. To come to this country and tell our people that their faith is wrong and that what the sects offer is truth, is disruptive.”

“If these sects claim to be faithful to the message of Christ, they should read the last chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew.”

A young woman, hanging laundry on a clothesline, listened attentively to the lamentations of Zarik.

“I used to be in a sect,” she revealed, “until I realized they did not really have the spiritual response I yearned for.”

I asked her about this sect, what it was called, what they believed, but she seemed reluctant to give any information. Soon we were surrounded by villagers, each of whom had an opinion:

“We have to save our Armenian traditions and religion,” a few of them cried. “We have to take the leaders of these sects to court; they are dangerous and they try to deceive our children.”

Openness to foreigners or strangers is not a Soviet legacy. How have these foreign sects succeeded in gaining such large numbers of new recruits?

“They take advantage of our economic problems – these hard days that all of us are living through – and distribute some food items to the villagers, which draws them to their revivals,” Zarik said bitterly.

“Every two weeks, about 70 villagers gather to hold discussions and pray,” Zarik continued. “I am unaware of what they discuss – and I do not really wish to know either, Because our villagers have so little religious training, they can be easily duped.”

Priestly formation is a primary goal of Karekin I:

“Our foremost goal is the promotion and education of the clergy. During the Soviet period restrictions were imposed by the Soviet authorities. We could have only 20 students at the seminary, who when ordained as priests would serve the 20 to 25 churches and monasteries that remained functioning.

“The training for our Soviet-era students was adapted to the situation of the time – our priests were prepared to maintain tradition. Missing was the spirit of the Gospel; religious education was forbidden for children and adults.

“After Armenia’s independence,” the Catholicos continued, “we noted a deep aspiration on behalf of youngsters for a spiritual life – we have no difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates for our seminary in Etchmiadzin. In 1996, we enrolled 90 students in our seminary on the Sevan peninsula and 16 graduates are now preparing their theses and will soon be ordained.

“What remains to be done in our seminaries is improvement of instruction and methodology and the expansion of our facilities.… We are forced to refuse candidates for lack of space,” he concluded.

Since his election in 1995 as Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin I has established the Center for Christian Education, which prepares the laity to teach catechism in the schools. At present, 520 students, most of them women, are studying every week in Yerevan, Etchmiadzin and other cities throughout the country.

Armenia’s economic needs should not be ignored by the church either, stated the Catholicos.

“Given the present economic conditions in our country, we wish to help the elderly, the orphaned, the sick and the handicapped. We have set up a committee that deals with such matters, but since the church does not have a permanent source of income, we must rely on donations and ecumenical support.”

The Armenian Apostolic Church, a crucial force in preserving the Armenian national identity, has survived wave after wave of invasion, annexation, persecution and neglect. Now free of the Soviet yoke, this church is at last able to respond fully to the nation’s spiritual awakening.

“Though there are concrete signs of revival,” Catholicos Karekin I concluded, “if the Armenian Church does not explore these, it will have missed a golden opportunity.”

Armineh Johannes, a Paris-based photojournalist, frequently contributes to this publication.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español