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The Armenian Apostolic Church

Thousands of tribes and peoples litter the pages of world history. After most have distinguished themselves, usually as conquerors or settlers, they pass from the scene, leaving as their legacy a tablet, a ruin or a reputation. The Armenians, whose ancient homeland now encompasses eastern Turkey, the Caucasus and northwestern Iran, have endured for more than 3,000 years – despite the challenges of living along the crossroads of East-West trade. Squeezed between Asia and Europe, Armenians have outlived more powerful neighbors, who repeatedly and relentlessly sought to subjugate them.

How have the Armenians survived, when far more powerful peoples – Romans and Parthians, Byzantines and Sassanids – vanished? Most historians would credit the resolve and resourcefulness of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a powerful body that has either defined or impacted all aspects of Armenian society and culture.

Christianity is adopted. Looming high above the clouds, an extinct volcano marks the site where the children of Abraham – Jews, Christians and Muslims – believe humanity regenerated after the great flood. According to the Book of Genesis, here, on Mount Ararat, Noah’s ark rested. And on these sacred slopes God promised Noah he would never again destroy creation with water.

In the shadow of Ararat, perched on a lesser hill but severed from the mountain by barbed wire, a small church stands above a dungeon. For more than 13 years this pit, some 23 feet deep, interned the future “illuminator of the Armenians,” Gregory. The son of a Parthian noble who had assassinated the Armenian king, Gregory joined the Armenians in their struggle against the powerful Parthians as an act of atonement. Learning of Gregory’s background, Tiridates III, the son and successor of the dead king, cast Gregory into the pit, leaving him there without food or water. Gregory survived, however, thanks to the efforts of a widow.

A proud and vain ruler, Tiridates despaired after having killed two Roman Christian virgins, Gayane and Hripsime, who with their companions sought refuge in Armenia (a famed beauty, Hripsime had refused the king’s advances). Summoned to heal Tiridates, whose unstable behavior had shaken the kingdom, Gregory instructed the king and his court to “recognize the Creator of all and throw off the yoke of evil…Know God. Put away your idols. He is long-suffering, forgiving and nurturing in his mercy…God cares for you all.”

Gregory earned not only his release, but a Christian nation. In 301, Gregory the Illuminator baptized the king and the entire court. The king declared Christianity as the state religion, establishing Armenia as the first Christian nation.

A Roman scribe, known to history as Agathangelos, recorded these events based on contemporary sources more than a century after the deaths of the principals. What is not documented, however, is the origin of Armenian Christianity. Even during the time of Gregory, Armenian Christians exhibited familiarity with the Syriac Christian customs of the Near East as well as the Greek Christian vocabulary of Asia Minor – both Greek and Syriac were employed in the celebration of the Eucharist. Ancient tradition credits the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus as the source of the Christian faith in Armenia.

A church grows. In his history, Agathangelos records that while instructing the king and his court Gregory dreamed that Jesus descended to earth and struck with a golden hammer the spot where Gayane and Hripsime were martyred. He instructed Gregory to build churches to enshrine the remains of the martyred virgins and a church to commemorate the “place of the descent,” or Etchmiadzin in Armenian.

Holy Etchmiadzin “is the heart of the Armenian nation,” writes the 19th-century Armenian poet, Berj Proshian. “Enter inside, kiss the point of descent and you will have kissed the entire expelled nation, dispersed throughout the universe.”

A complex of churches and shrines that, according to tradition, were constructed with stone quarried by the king from Ararat, Etchmiadzin became Gregory’s seat as catholicos, or chief prelate of the church. Until the death of Catholicos Sahak the Great in 438, catholicoi descended directly from Gregory.

Armenia’s powerful neighbors, the Eastern Romans (Byzantines) and the Persians, though constantly at odds, agreed in 387 to divide the kingdom, which had served as a buffer between them. Though an independent Armenian nation ceased, the Christian faith flourished among Byzantine Armenians. But the Armenians of Persia were unsuccessfully coerced into adopting Zoroastrianism.

To strengthen the faith among his embattled flock, most of whom lived in Persia, Catholicos Sahak commissioned the monk Mesrob Mastoc to work on an alphabet that would render the tenets of the Christian faith in the vernacular. Devised in 405, the first words rendered by Mesrob came from Proverbs: “That men may appreciate wisdom and discipline, may understand words of intelligence.”

Charged with translating Scripture, the works of the church fathers and the works of classical Greece and Rome, Mesrob and his disciples traveled to the primary centers of learning, Alexandria, Athens, Constantinople and Edessa. Their work introduced the Armenian Church to the great theological disputes of early Christendom, particularly questions regarding the person and nature of Jesus and his relationship to the Creator. But rebellion against the Persians prevented the Armenians from actively participating in these debates, especially the Council of Chalcedon (451), which attempted to settle the differences promoted by the rival theological schools of Alexandria and Antioch.

In 448, the Persian emperor demanded that his Armenian subjects renounce Christianity, which he identified as a symbol of their loyalty to his Byzantine rival.

In response, a national council of church and civil leaders gathered near Khor Virap, the dungeon that had once imprisoned Gregory. While declaring civil obedience to the Persian emperor, the council declared their steadfast spiritual loyalty to Christ: “Nobody can move us away from this faith, neither angels, nor people, nor sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any severe ordeal. For we have a covenant of faith, not with human beings…but an indissoluble vow with God, from whom it is impossible to stay away neither now, nor tomorrow, nor for ever and ever.”

While the last descendant of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the sainted Vartan, lost his life to the Persians defending the Armenian Church in 451, a peace treaty 33 years later granted the Armenians of Persia the freedom to practice their Christian faith.

A church is consolidated. In 551, in the city of Dvin, the synod of the Armenian Church rejected the Council of Chalcedon, reaffirmed its adherence to the Christological formula of St. Cyril of Alexandria and severed communion with the Church of Constantinople, in effect severing the Armenian Church’s ties to the Church of Rome.

The synod did not, however, demand the severance of commercial or cultural relationships with the Byzantine Empire, including the imperial church. For more than 400 years, trade between the two flourished. Byzantine emperors employed Armenian scribes, who flocked to Constantinople. Byzantine subjects served Armenian prelates and members of the nobility. Armenians engineered Byzantine defense systems and restored the dome of Haghia Sophia, the Great Church of Eastern Christendom. Armenians even ascended the Byzantine throne, establishing dynasties that supported the redevelopment of an independent Armenia, which cushioned the barrier between the Byzantine Christian and ascendant Arab Muslim worlds.

The medieval Armenian capital city of Ani – now a ghostly ruin just inside Turkey’s border with Armenia – demonstrates the architectural sophistication and artistic wealth of medieval Armenia. Described in contemporary chronicles as the “city of a 1001 churches,” Ani’s surviving churches are technical wonders, utilizing architectural devices – such as blind arcades and ribbed vaults – that would later support Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Surviving frescoes and sculpted panels depicting kings and catholicoi, saints and angels, birds and crosses, reveal Arab, Byzantine, classical Greek and Persian influences.

The liturgical rites of the medieval Armenian Church, particularly the Soorp Badarak, or Divine Liturgy, mirrored the cosmopolitan nature of Armenian ecclesiastical art and architecture: While historians suggest the supremacy of Syriac sources, they also recognize influences from the churches of Antioch, Cappadocia and Jerusalem.

Dispersion and resurrection. During the summer of 1071, independent Armenia disintegrated when the Seljuk Turks defeated Byzantine forces in Manzikert, an Armenian town. As the emperor’s army retreated to Constantinople, the Seljuks and their allies filled the void, overrunning Armenian and Byzantine territory.

As the Seljuks consolidated their holdings in Asia Minor, a number of Armenian nobles, taking with them their families, their retainers and their treasure, fled south, settling in the former Byzantine theme (or province) of Cilicia. In less than a decade, these exiled Armenian nobles established a collection of independent principalities, eventually forging the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. They also formed uneasy alliances with bands of European nobles, vassals and hangers-on – members of the First Crusade.

The arrival of the Crusaders changed the fate of the new Armenian state and the orientation of the Armenian Church. European military aid, intermarriage and family alliances buttressed the kingdom, which survived until 1375. The catholicoi (who settled in the Cilician capital of Sis in 1293 after wandering from monastery to monastery for nearly two centuries) increasingly adopted Latin (Roman Catholic) customs and liturgical practices as contacts with the Catholic Church increased.

While these initiatives nurtured dreams of restoring full communion within the universal church, they also provoked schism, leading to the establishment of an independent Armenian Apostolic patriarchate in Jerusalem and the eventual restoration, in 1441, of Etchmiadzin as the permanent seat of the catholicosate – far from the reaches of Catholic Europe in the Shiite Muslim realm of Persia.

Modern tragedies. In May 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, and with it what little that remained of Byzantium. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror – wishing to restore Constantinople’s imperial past – repopulated his city with, among others, Armenians. In 1461, he established the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople and appointed Constantinople’s Armenian bishop as patriarch, charging him with the spiritual and secular oversight of all Armenians in the empire.

For more than four centuries, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire thrived: Merchants traded luxury goods and spices, bureaucrats served the sultan, artisans sumptuously appointed churches and bishops guided their eparchies, which until the eve of World War I numbered 52. But the rise of national movements throughout 19th-century Europe, which began in Ottoman provinces in the Balkans, significantly altered the position of the empire’s Christian minorities.

The empire’s Armenian communities, whose aspirations were nominally supported by France, Great Britain and Russia, were violently targeted, beginning with isolated pogroms in 1894 and 1895. Eventually, these incidents spread throughout the empire, fueled after the Ottoman Turks entered World War I as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1923, some 1.5 million Armenians perished in what many today call the Armenian Genocide. Those who survived, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria. (Turkey disputes the term genocide and the number of the dead and expelled.)

Turkey’s Armenian bishops and priests suffered the same fates as their people. Ancient monasteries and shrines were leveled and properties appropriated. The Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, which had been centered since the 15th century in a monastery in Sis, a largely Armenian town in southern Turkey, fled to the Syrian city of Aleppo. Eventually, the seat of the catholicosate finally was settled in the Beirut suburb of Antelias. Today, Catholicos Aram I guides some 800,000 Armenian Apostolic Christians living in Cyprus, Greece, Iran, Lebanon, North America and Syria.

Though spared the horrors of genocide, Etchmiadzin (which was absorbed by Russia along with the rest of the Armenian community of the Caucasus by 1828) faced the anarchy associated with the unraveling of tsarist Russia, the rise of a fiercely atheistic Communist regime in 1920 and the incorporation of Armenia into the Soviet Union in 1922.

Although Armenians enjoyed a relative degree of quiet during the Soviet period, bishops and priests were harassed and imprisoned, theologians and philosophers exiled and churches, monasteries and seminaries closed. While the Soviets treated the Armenian Apostolic Church with less severity than the Armenian Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, normal parish and monastic life was ruptured and proper priestly formation was stunted.

Modern miracles. Approximately 90 percent of the Republic of Armenia’s population of 3.3 million people claim membership in the Armenian Apostolic Church. Nevertheless, forming Christians is the principal task of the church.

“During the Soviet regime,” said Catholicos Karekin II in an interview with this magazine in 2001, “our people were cut off from their customs, religious traditions and community life; their faith gradually was pushed aside.

“Today we have freedom of worship and, since we wish for our people to live according to Christian principles, it is necessary for our church to penetrate into each Armenian hearth. To do that one must reorganize and restore Armenian community life. We are confronted, however, with a lack of priests; we must form them in sufficient numbers so the church may be present to the people – in the army, hospitals, prisons and schools.”

Though free to exercise fully in the Republic of Armenia, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Armenian Apostolic Church must compete with materialism, secularism and an influx of religious sects, such as Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons and evangelical Protestant groups, many of them from North America.

With the arrival of foreign aid after the earthquake of December 1988, numerous sects arrived in Armenia. They attracted people with their wealth and employed aggressive recruitment methods, claiming “that they, not the church, are the ones who hold the truth,” said the catholicos.

“We have taken certain steps in order to prevent the proliferation of these sects and to limit their successes at our expense,” he continued. Under his leadership, the church has trained catechists, opened seminaries, constructed new churches and repaired others. With the assistance of the state, the church airs religious programming on radio and television and publishes books.

The tasks confronting the Armenian Apostolic Church – resurrecting Christian life at home, keeping the faith alive in the diaspora and building on the considerable ecumenical advances made in the last 50 years – are indeed significant. But even a cursory examination of Armenia’s past reveals the successes of this culture and its church, for “to the right hand and to Holy Etchmiadzin, the whole of the Armenian nation is bound.”

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s assistant secretary of communications.

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