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Where God Descended

New directions for Armenia’s mother church

Etchmiadzin is the spirit and soul of Armenians,” said Father Mkrtich Proshian, dean of the Vaskenian Theological Seminary, which overlooks the shore of Armenia’s Lake Sevan.

“It keeps the diaspora spiritually alive and is the heart of the nation.”

At once referring to the world’s oldest cathedral and a complex of structures — ancient, medieval and modern — Etchmiadzin echoes sanctity and stability. The complex houses the administrative offices of the Armenian Apostolic Church and functions as the repository of its cultural and spiritual heritage. Located west of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, Etchmiadzin enjoys renewed celebrity in post-Soviet Armenia. Yet, it faces daunting challenges as the church struggles to redefine itself in this resource poor and geopolitically fragile country.

“The fact that it was built with stone from Mount Ararat is very symbolic,” continued the priest. Armenians have revered the region’s highest peak for more than three millennia, once believing Ararat to be the home of their pantheon of gods. Here, Noah’s ark rested after the great flood and here God offered his covenant to Noah. Though Ararat remains a national symbol, the mountain lies across the country’s border, in what is now Turkey — a fact that inspires great sorrow among Armenians.

“It is at once a symbol of our covenant with God, a symbol of hope of our promised land and the most poignant reminder of our loss,” said Armenian journalist Levon Sevunts, who immigrated to Canada in 1992.

Translated from Armenian as “the place where the only begotten (miatsin) descended (echnel),” Etchmiadzin honors a vision.

Shortly after baptizing Armenia’s king in 301, Gregory “the Illuminator” dreamed Christ descended from heaven with a host of angels and struck the ground with a golden hammer. Christ commanded Gregory to commemorate the “place of the descent” and to enshrine there the remains of two Roman Christian martyrs, Gayane and Hripsime.

The deaths of these sainted women, which the king had ordered a few years earlier, had plunged Armenia into turmoil; the king, fraught with guilt, despaired and lost all reason. Seeking solace, he turned to Gregory, who healed and baptized him.

Moved by the Illuminator’s vision, the penitent monarch constructed a church — which became the episcopal seat for the catholicos-patriarch, or chief prelate of the Armenian Church — on a site long considered holy. Archaeological excavations carried out in the cathedral in the late 1950’s revealed the remains of a Roman-era temple dedicated to Artemis and an even older obelisk from the Urartian civilization (about 860 to 585 B.C).

Etchmiadzin fast became the intellectual and cultural hub of Armenia, as well as its ecclesiastical center. Though nestled high in the Caucasus Mountains, Armenia was poised between the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean and the Syriac-Persian culture of the Near East. Armenia’s Christian leaders took the best of both, synthesizing a unique Armenian Christian society.

Around 405, the sainted scholar Mesrob Mashtots devised an alphabet for the Armenian language. This ushered in a golden age of Armenian literature and culture, forging an identity rooted in Christian faith, open to influences from West and East and confident Etchmiadzin was a place touched by God.

The original cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator and King Tiridates III was replaced in 480 with the current cruciform structure — perhaps the first of its kind — on the orders of a Byzantine governor (Armenia had lost its independence to Byzantium in 387). But the new building did not serve for long as the principal church of Armenia.

In 484, the catholicos left Etchmiadzin and established his seat near the court of the restored Armenian monarchy in the nearby town of Dvin. For some 950 years the chief prelates of the Armenian Church wandered with the court of the Armenian state, settling in 11 different locations. But the lure of the “place of the descent” proved too strong. In 1441, the mother see returned permanently to Etchmiadzin.

As both the nation’s cultural cradle and the church’s spiritual core, Etchmiadzin embodies the Armenian people’s proud heritage and hope for brighter days.

“Everything good was made by the church: alphabet, literature, architecture, music,” said the dean of the Gevorkian Theological Seminary, Father Vasken Nanian.

“It is truly a national church. You cannot learn the history of Armenia without learning the history of the Armenian Church.”

“Being Armenian means being Christian. The national identity and Christian identity are inseparable,” said Father Gevork Saroyan, who serves as dean of Etchmiadzin’s Karekin I Theological-Armenilogical Center. “And thanks to the church we were able to survive.”

The seamless integration of culture, faith and language, which had forged a unique Armenian identity, enabled the Armenian people to endure (and thrive) for centuries, despite periods of benign neglect or political oppression. But the collective trials of the past had not prepared them for the tragedies that would visit them in the 20th century.

Under Turkish rule since the 14th century, Armenians of the eastern Mediterranean had long moved freely within the Ottoman Empire. But during World War I, the Young Turks — a reform movement under the sultan — forcibly displaced the empire’s Armenians for their alleged ties to the Allies, who were at war with Turkey. This resulted in the deaths of some 1.5 million people. Survivors fled to Lebanon, Syria, Europe and America.

The Armenian clergy in Ottoman Turkey were particularly hard hit; only 47 of an estimated 5,000 priests survived, according to studies conducted by the Armenian Church Research and Analysis Group.

Still reeling from the devastation, eastern Armenia, which included Etchmiadzin and the Armenian heartland in the Caucasus, fell to the Red Army as the Bolsheviks consolidated their power in Russia and forced its weaker neighbors to surrender.

The Soviets wasted little time in suppressing all rivals, especially faith communities, targeting the Armenian Apostolic Church. When Joseph Stalin (a former seminarian) assumed power, he classified the clergy as “anti-Soviet” and purged them. Evidence unearthed from the archives of the secret police since 1991 reveals that between 1930 and 1938, 232 cases of treason were brought against Armenian priests, 148 of whom were censored and 84 executed.

Among the victims was Catholicos Khoren I, who was elected to the catholicosate in 1932. Purportedly, the catholicos was strangled in 1938, but records indicate heart attack as the official cause of death. Tossed in a common grave, Khoren’s remains were exhumed in 1996 and reburied at the Mother Church of Etchmiadzin.

Many Armenians today credit the faith, resolve and the resources of the Armenian community in the diaspora with keeping alive the Armenian identity, even as it languished back home.

The Christian faith of the Armenian diaspora, explained Father Gevork, functions as the principal bridge between them and the homeland, citing examples where the community sacrificed its own needs in order to build churches.

“It helped us especially during Soviet times — it was the diaspora that kept faith alive,” he said.

“Everything was destroyed, baptisms were conducted underground,” said Father Vasken of the Gevorkian Seminary. “The church was a museum. My parents came from a village where the church was used for storage. Candles were stuck on the outside. Because people were afraid to come in the day, they came at night to light them.”

As elsewhere in the Soviet Union, the influence of the church was systematically undermined. Monasteries and churches were destroyed or simply reused as warehouses, granaries or cinemas.

Father Gevork recalled how his mother’s grandfather recited Bible stories from memory, which she passed down to her children, warning them not to repeat them on the street. Not until the final years of perestroika (Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of liberal economic reform) in the late 1980’s did his family actually acquire a Bible.

Journalist Levon Sevunts clearly remembers growing up in Yerevan’s atheistic environment.

“Yet even my unbelieving parents have tremendous respect for the Armenian Apostolic Church, something they passed on to us when we were kids,” he said.

“Part of it has to do with the appreciation of the immense role the church has played in the history of the Armenian people, part of it has to do with the aesthetic appreciation of the art, architecture, sacred music and literature produced by the Armenian Church throughout its history.”

Unlike his parents, whom he describes as agnostic, Mr. Sevunts considers himself a firm believer; he and his wife were baptized in 1989. He admits, though, he is not an observant Christian, a fact he blames on his upbringing.

“I’m more or less ignorant of the church’s rites, traditions and customs having to do with everyday life,” he said. “Yet, there is something in the Armenian Church that stirs my soul like nothing else.

“It’s a part of the Armenian landscape that has been ingrained in my mind almost at the level of genetic encoding.”

Etchmiadzin functioned as the center of the Armenian Apostolic Church even during Soviet times, which lent it considerable moral authority, no matter how restricted. Stalin reopened its theological seminary after World War II, though mostly as a symbolic gesture. No more than 30 students ever enrolled, few of whom were ordained as priests.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Catholicos Vasken I, Etchmiadzin and the Armenian Apostolic Church enjoyed a small degree of independence.

“The personality of Vasken I was so influential and his charisma so overwhelming that he somehow embodied the deeply concealed aspirations of the people at large,” said Armen Arkesheshian of the Armenia Regional Development Project.

“Communism was in many ways an extremely interesting time from the perspective of how you concealed your real values, which were prohibited, and pretended you didn’t follow them,” he added.

As catholicos-patriarch of all the Armenians, Vasken worked relentlessly until his death in 1994 to assert Etchmiadzin’s position as the spiritual center for all Armenians, while fostering deeper ties with Etchmiadzin’s historical rival, the Armenian Apostolic Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he swiftly made overtures toward the emergent democratic government, overhauled church canons and restructured its administration.

But while Vasken I strengthened the church’s role in Armenian life, it remained resource poor. The church continues to be financially strapped and short of personnel. In 1999, only 100 priests were working in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in neighboring Azerbaijan with a predominantly Armenian population. And while the number has since tripled to about 300, that still only amounts to one priest for every 10,000 people.

“After the Iron Curtain fell, everything went down. It was a free land, but what to do with it?” said Father Vasken Nanian of Etchmiadzin’s Gevorkian Seminary. “We lost pastoral contact; priests didn’t know how to approach people.”

This dearth of resources has become more urgent in recent years as the number of foreign missionaries — Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in particular — proselytizing in Armenia grows. The work of these groups offends many clergy and lay people alike, who view them as a threat to the country’s national security and identity. Many ascribe the success of these sects to the economic assistance they provide converts.

“We don’t understand why they need to Christianize us,” protested Father Gevork. “Our history is a great testament to the power of Christianity and they come here to convert us! They are buying souls. It isn’t honest.”

While the issue ignites heated debate, Father Vasken believes that by simply staying strong and remaining nonconfrontational, the Armenian Apostolic Church can best resist the influence of these nontraditional faiths.

“You [should] send a priest to a village that has been taken over by Jehovah’s Witnesses … even an Armenian Jehovah’s Witness is still an Armenian,” he said.

Father Mkrtich Proshian, who has responsibility for the initial formation of the next generation of Armenia’s priests, would like to see a priest in every community — something he thinks can be accomplished in 10 years at the current rate of ordination.

“Each year about 35 deacons graduate from our seminaries,” said Father Mkrtich. “I’m proud to say our church is one of the oldest in the world and one of the youngest, too.”

In their early 30’s, Fathers Mkrtich, Gevork and Vasken are among the first wave of post- Soviet graduates from Armenia’s two newly opened seminaries. Liberally educated with study experiences abroad, these young priests are direct beneficiaries of the reforms initiated by the current catholicos, Karekin II, who hopes to ordain a knowledgeable and cultivated clergy.

Karekin II has also established church-sponsored youth centers, where youngsters engage in after-school recreational and vocational training programs.

“One of the most important things His Holiness has done is arranging for the history of the church to be taught in [state] schools,” stressed Father Vasken.

“It’s ironic that now it’s kids telling their parents about the church and not the other way around.”

The catholicosate also reaches out to the faithful through its television network, Shoghakat TV, named after a 17th-century church in Etchmiadzin. Established in 1999, the network’s wide-ranging programming includes cartoons, talk shows and films.

Still, Father Vasken remains concerned that church leaders are not doing enough to uplift people spiritually. He describes how people come to church not to hear the liturgy but simply to light candles — a phenomenon he attributes to the improving economy.

“Now things are changing. When people’s conditions improve, they care less about religion.”

But Father Mkrtich on the other hand seems pleased Armenians worship at all.

“The main thing is to be saved by Christ. Whether you pray at home or in church, Armenians are spiritual Christians and mystics. If I light a candle and stay in church for three minutes, maybe that’s all it takes to get to Christ. It’s probably our style.”

Baptized with her husband in 1991, Yerevan resident Anna Galystian echoes Father Mkrtich. “I don’t go to church every Sunday, but I do go for special holidays. I don’t think I have to go weekly to be Christian.”

Armenian-Canadian journalist Levon Sevunts observes a stark contrast between the way Armenians worship in Armenia and in the diaspora. Whereas the faithful living in Armenia mainly attend the liturgy to satisfy their spiritual needs, those in the diaspora treat it as a means to preserve their identity. For those who do not know Armenian, the church links them to their heritage.

“What you often see in the diaspora are these observant parishioners who never miss the Sunday liturgy, but are not religious at all,” Mr. Sevunts suggested. “Etchmiadzin for these people becomes the sacred depository of their Armenian identity.”

Based in Tbilisi, Georgia, Paul Rimple writes on the Caucasus for a number of journals.

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