Very Rev. Haigazoun Najarian

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A Man of the Church Serving Armenians throughout the World

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — He has lived and worked in the Middle East, Armenia, Great Britain and the United States, and soon will be working in central and northern Europe. With a twinkle in his eye, he has won new friends wherever he has gone. Very Rev. Haigazoun Najarian has served the Armenian Church and the Armenian people in many different settings, but always with the same genuine spirit.

Many people in the United States know him as vicar of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of American (Eastern), a responsible position second administratively only to the Primate which he held thrice, from 2007 to 2010, 1990 to 1995 (under the slightly different title vicar-general), and 1986 to 1987 (in an acting capacity).

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He also served three American parishes as pastor: Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Armenian Church in Wynnewood, Penn. (2002-2007), St. Sarkis Church of Dallas (2000-2002) and St. Stepanos Church in Elberon, NJ (1988-1990).

Although by the time he came to the United States, Najarian was already a well-traveled person, the ways of the local Armenians, as well as of America in general, still were surprising: “For me, the first time I came to the US was a unique experience. I remember the first ACYOA meeting in Philadelphia. I was amazed to see young people running meetings. The [Eastern]  Diocese itself — a huge sphere of activity — was very interesting for me. There is order and mission in the Diocese. And the US was a huge country. When I drove two-three hours to Philadelphia from New York City I thought I had traveled a great distance. Then I looked on the map and saw only two-three inches and was awed by the hugeness of this country.”

He found that though the general characteristics of Armenians might be the same throughout the world, society was different in some ways in the US. The remnants of the compatriotic unions were still around in the late 1980s. Furthermore, “The political parties in the Middle East were the active element, more so than the Church. This seemed to me to be the main difference — that the Church plays a fundamental role in Armenians’ lives here in a variety of spheres — for example, culture, philanthropy and sports.”

Najarian sees this to be a blessing for Armenians, since the traditional political parties saw their activities constricted in the US for a variety of reasons: “At least the church is able to continue through a second and third generation due to this country’s broader tolerant attitude toward churches in general.”

Another positive point Najarian observed in comparison to Armenians in other countries is that the generally more democratic tendencies in America allow greater room for ordinary people to participate in the Armenian Church’s structures, not just the rich. Over the last two decades, Najarian has seen some fundamental social changes taking place: “It is natural that the language here retreats with the succession of generations. The ties with the old country, the memories, are growing faint. Admittedly, the recent independence of Armenia and Karabagh movement created much enthusiasm and new connections to Armenia. Nonetheless, assimilation, a downhill movement, rapidly is growing.” He pointed out as one concrete example that when he first came to the Diocese, theater and various musical and cultural events would take place, but today these types of things have largely ceased. Najarian likes to cite Antranig Dzarougian’s comparison of the Armenian Diaspora to a piece of ice that has fallen to the ground. It will eventually melt, and all that one can do is to try to delay this from happening for a period.

Najarian pointed out that very few of the descendants of the first Ottoman Armenian immigrants still remain in the bosom of the church. Through mixed marriages or estrangement, they largely have assimilated or disappeared. No major new waves of immigration can be expected from the Middle East, as these communities largely have already been depleted of their populations. Those coming from the Republic of Armenia don’t have the same concerns for the preservation of identity as prior immigrants because they come largely for economic reasons, often without strong religious traditions or nationalist upbringing due to the prior Soviet influence. They only get involved in Armenian culture and community life years after their arrival, when it is often too late for their children.

Najarian sees no easy solution. Through hard work, new generations must be taught to be proud of their Armenian heritage. It is the unique language, culture and theology of the Armenians that is instructive and valuable not only for themselves but also for non-Armenians. The efforts of parents, churches and organizations must be continual. He bewailed a tendency among Armenian-Americans to avoid investing in their own institutions and their future: “We must dedicate our best efforts to our institutions. We spend the minimum and make the maximum in demands.”

From Syria to Echmiadzin

Najarian was born in 1952 in Aleppo, Syria to parents whose origins were in Cilicia, in Kilis and Jibin. As a child, he saw his great-grandmother. Her family had gone back to Cilicia after the deportations, and left a second time. Najarian’s grandmother Vartuhi was left with Kurds during the 1915 deportations, and the family only later retrieved her. Many family members were killed in this period.

Najarian’s family lived in Davudiye, a suburb of Aleppo established by Armenians on some rocky terrain. This suburb only later became a part of the city. Most families were Turkish speaking in this area, as they were from Cilicia, but through the efforts of Najarian’s mother their family (he was the second child, with three brothers and one sister) spoke Armenian at home. HIs father initially fixed machines, and then went into construction. Though he had no opportunity to receive a formal education, he was able to do calculations in his mind and sometimes was able to correct the work of trained architects.

The family moved in 1956 to Beirut for economic reasons — there were more possibilities for work there. Armenian schools there cost money. Najarian’s mother did sewing work in the house to make the extra money necessary for the education of her children beyond elementary school. He first attended the Vahan Tekeyan School in Beirut, and then the Hovagimian-Manoogian Secondary School from 1964 to 1967. During his third year at Hovagimian- Manoogian, some vartabeds from Jerusalem came to his family’s house. One of them wanted to collect students to send to Jerusalem’s Armenian seminary, and though this was not the purpose of their visit at the house, he asked the young Najarian whether he wanted to come with them. In 1966 he was only 13 or 14 years old, and his mother felt he was too young. In any case, in 1967 Jerusalem was occupied through war, ending this possibility. However, a teacher at Hovagimian then proposed that Najarian go to Echmiadzin. This time Najarian’s parents agreed. In 1968, he left for Soviet Armenia.

Young Najarian’s main motivation was to further his education and he was told he did not necessarily have to become a cleric. He reminisces: “At that time, I did not know much about the church. It is true that I had religious classes and saw clerics. I went to Sunday school and took communion several times a year. However,

I really did not understand much of the church services or what was going on in church.”

Though the men in the family were not particularly attached to the Armenian Church, they were very patriotic Armenians. It was Najarian’s grandmother and her mother who were very pious. They had a great influence on the Najarian children. They knew the divine liturgy by heart.

The Calling

It took six or seven years’ study in Echmiadzin before a profound love for the Armenian Church and a calling took root in Najarian. Initially, it was a difficult transition. He elucidates: “It must be said that it was a great shock when I went to Armenia. It was strange to me why there were such difficulties there — national, economic and religious. Even as an adolescent, I had to come to grips with why there was a need for Armenia, and what could happen there. I had to convince myself why its existence was necessary. It took me three or four years to fully understand it as the realization of our [Armenians’] dreams.”

Furthermore, as he entered the USSR as a Syrian citizen, the young Najarian could not return to visit his family for five years. After much difficulty, he succeeded in obtaining a passport and could see his parents again. He went again once more after graduating, so that for most of his seven years in Echmiadzin he relied on correspondence and the kindness of travelers to keep in touch with family and friends.

Echmiadzin’s Gevorgian Theological Seminary was at that time small, with only about 40 students. Roughly 10 of these at any one period were from abroad. Many of the firstyear students would drop out before graduation. Though a seminary, the fundamental stress during the late Soviet period of necessity was more on national history and literature than religion. There were a few good specialists on theology. Catholicos Vazken I himself taught some classes in logic, philosophy and rhetoric. Najarian recalls that “he was a very demanding teacher. We loved him, but he always kept his distance. You had to stand like a soldier in front of him.”

The students in the seminary had the opportunity to travel a lot in Armenia then, and visited many of the historical Armenian monasteries. As a deacon, he was also able to participate in Armenian religious services in Tbilisi (the church there used the old calendar so that important feast days were celebrated there thirteen days later) and the important Russian-Armenian center of New Nakhichevan (Rostovon- Don). Echmiadzin had an arrangement with Leningrad’s Orthodox Academy allowing the seminarians to visit and see important sites there. The young Najarian with some friends independently visited many historical sites in Karabagh and traveled to Kiev by car.

When he graduated the seminary, the catholicos kept him for one year as an assistant in his office, and then decided to send him to England. Najarian explains: “It was my thirst for religious education that led me to go there.”

Ordained a deacon in 1973, he thought he wanted to become a celibate priest, but needed some more time to make that important decision. He received a World Council of Churches scholarship for practical theology at St. Augustine’s College, an Anglican institution near Canterbury. There, he saw the need to learn more formal theology, and applied to and was accepted by King’s College. He wanted to continue further at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, but the sudden increase in cost of universities after 1979 made it impossible. During this period, the young Najarian continued to work as a deacon, under the supervision of Nerses Srpazan. Making up his mind, he became consecrated an apegha or celibate priest in London in 1975. From 1979 to 1981, Najarian served as pastor of St. Peter Armenian Church in London.

In 1981, Najarian returned to Armenia to become the assistant director of Echmiadzin’s theological seminary, where he lectured on the Bible and general church history. He wrote and defended an academic thesis, which allowed him to become a vartabed in 1983. In 1986, he advanced in rank to dzayrakoyn vartabed.

Najarian remembers this period as a comfortable one in the USSR. Travel was much easier and many restrictions were lifted. However, there were not that many changes yet for the church. For example, a cleric could not preach outside of churches, so a series of lectures were begun in St. Sarkis Church explaining the church canons, the Bible and other fundamental matters. Unexpectedly, at one of these sessions, a layman after the formal lecture asked the question, what does the Bible say about the Karabagh question. Najarian exclaimed: “It was laughable — but it also showed that people were looking to the church for guidance on contemporary issues.”

Many of Najarian’s students from this period went on to play a prominent role in the Church of Armenia. Among them are leaders of important dioceses like Archbishops Barkev Mardirosian of Karabagh (Artsakh), Yezras Nersisian of New Nakhichevan and Russia, and Navasard Kjoyan of the Araratian Diocese and Bishop Abraham Mkrtchian of Syunik.

Armenia Redux

The head of the Diocese in New York, Bishop Torkom Manoogian, invited Fr. Najarian to continue his education in the US and at the same time serve as a cleric there. Indeed, after studying with Prof. Nina Garsoïan at Columbia University, in 1994 he received a master’s degree in history. After some nine years in the US, he was sent to Echmiadzin as a delegate of the Eastern Diocese after Catholicos Vazken I’s death to elect the latter’s successor. When Karekin I was elected catholicos, Najarian offered as a monk to come and help. He explained: “I thought that I could work for a few more years in America until he was settled in and ready. Instead, he said I want you immediately. Upon my return to the US, I received a formal letter asking me to come to Echmiadzin because this was an important period of change and he needed young and energetic forces.” So Fr. Najarian agreed, and became the director of Echmiadzin’s seminary in 1995.

This was a period of change. The average number of students increased from 40 to 100- 125. A new larger building was used and a new dormitory was built. There was still a shortage of teachers of religious subjects, so there could not be great change yet in pedagogy. Najarian himself again taught the New Testament and participated in the organization of Sunday schools for Armenia, which were still a relative novelty then. He was on the board of several societies in this period that helped to spread religious knowledge in Armenia.

Najarian worked in Armenia until the end of 1999, when a new catholicos was elected. He felt that he carried out his commitment to Karekin I, and could now return to the US. He did so in the beginning of 2000.

Back to Europe

Najarian is already preparing for his new position of Pontifical Legate of Central Europe and Sweden. He met with the church executive in Vienna, and reports: “My impression was quite positive. They are serious people — lawyers, professors and other professionals. Vienna is fairly organized.” There are two small parishes in Austria, in Graz and Litz, that may need some assistance.

Najarian stated that Sweden, with a married priest and an apegha, has had a parish for around 20 years, and is fairly organized. The main concern appears to be the countries formerly in the Soviet bloc — Czech, Slovakia and Hungary. A new wave of immigrants from Armenia have settled there, sometimes without legal papers, and do not have much contact with Armenian institutions.

Looking back on his career, which is far from ending, Najarian reflects: “Naturally I had difficulties in life but these difficulties also gave me the pride that I was able to overcome them. If God would give me a life again, I would again want to live the present life in the same way. I feel satisfied spiritually and otherwise.”

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