Abp. Barsamian Ponders Past, Looks Forward to His Sixth Term as Primate


By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Archbishop Khajag Barsamian holds one of the most prestigious and influential positions in the hierarchy of the Armenian Church. He reflected on his past, and set out some goals for the future after recently being elected to a sixth term as Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), which makes him the second-longest-serving Primate of this diocese.

Despite the length of his service, Barsamian remains energetic and enthusiastic in his promotion of the values of the Armenian Church. He finds it very relevant for the complexities of modern society: “The Armenian Church is so balanced in everything — its theology and its attitudes. It is not judgmental. We have never been judgmental. We lived with believers of other faiths, respecting them while they respected us. Our church fathers speak of personal choices about life as the gift of God. The focus is on developing the consciousness of the individual, and then allowing the individual to make the right decision.”

A Calling to Serve

Barsamian never imagined himself as a high-ranking hierarch when he first was attracted to the Armenian Church. He recalls his youth in Arapgir, Turkey, where there was no church. Nonetheless, thanks to the influence of his family, and in particular his pious grandmother, he relates, “I felt a calling from my childhood when I was a young boy in Arapgir. That is what my parents tell me. My mother tells that when I was a little boy I used to imitate a priest — putting on a shurchar.” In Istanbul, he participated each morning, before attending Surp Mesrop School in Gedikpasha, in the morning services of the adjacent St. Hovhannes Armenian Church. The priest of the church encouraged this, and Patriarch Shnorhk Kaloustian played an important role: “He watched me as a young boy and observed how I participated in church services. He made special arrangements for me to be accepted at the Holy Cross Seminary. Usually only boys from the interior provinces of Turkey were accepted but he made an exception for me.”

Then in 1967, a priest came to recruit students for the Armenian Seminary in Jerusalem. Patriarch Kaloustian encouraged the 16-year-old Sarkis (this was the future archbishop’s baptismal name) to go, and his parents were hesitant but agreed. As a deacon in Jerusalem, when Ara Kalaydjian, then an Armenian literature teacher (and later an editor of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator), asked the seminarians to write an essay on why they wanted to become priests, “I wrote that this is the best way to serve the Armenian people and nation.” Barsamian recalls today that this was his motivation to accept ordination, but he initially was drawn to teaching.

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He continued his education at the General Theological Seminary in New York, St. John’s University in Minnesota, the Oriental Institute in Oxford and the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. Suddenly, he was summoned back to New York at the beginning of 1989. Archbishop Torkom Manoogian needed help after the earthquake in Armenia. Fr. Khajag served as vicar-heneral of the Diocese, but the Patriarch of Jerusalem soon passed away, and Archbishop Manoogian was elected in his place. Shortly thereafter, in 1990, Fr. Khajag was elected as Primate. He was consecrated as a bishop in October of that same year by Catholicos of All Armenians Vasken I and received the rank of archbishop in 1992.

Barsamian’s tenure as Primate coincided with very important historical changes for the entire Armenian nation — earthquake, perestroika, the Karabagh struggle and Armenian independence. Looking back, he declared, “There were so many challenges and difficulties. I think in my humble way I made my own contribution. At the Diocese we started the Karabagh Committee. After the earthquake, outreach help started from this Diocese to Armenia. During my primacy, that outreach became more structured and turned into an organization — Fund for Armenian Relief — in the place of individual efforts. It is now one of the major organizations that help Armenia.”

The Diocese also helped put the newly independent Republic of Armenia in closer contact with the United States government and its Armenian-American citizens. “We helped mediate between the US and the Republic of Armenia. My personal relations with President Levon Ter- Petrosian led me to invite the first representative of the Republic, Alexander Arzoumanian, to open an office here. In the beginning it was not official, but he soon became ambassador and the embassy was initially at the Diocesan headquarters.”

The Primate made a number of administrative reforms. “We tried to improve the  management of the Diocese. Our goal is to reach out and better serve our parishes. The Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center was started thanks to Mrs. [Dolores] Leibmann. Soon after, I requested Fr. Krikor Maksoudian to come as director. He came and developed it into an important center organizing many major events.”

Creating a very good management structure is important since the Diocese is a service organization. “We must serve better. This is something which is always in the process of developing. …But most important are the people you have working in an organization. You have to develop people.”

The Diocese has had many executive directors in recent years. In the past few years it has operated without one. The Primate, however, feels that one is necessary: “We need somebody to manage the regular operations of the Diocese. Then I can focus on more pastoral issues. So, we are now searching to find the right person for this position.”

Finances have been an inescapable element to running a successful Diocese, and the Primate feels that the situation today, despite the economic crisis, is a good one: “One of my focuses as Primate is becoming financially stable. The Armenian Church Endowment Fund has grown from approximately $13 million to $80 million in trust for the Diocese, parishes, Echmiadzin, Antelias, Jerusalem and St. Nersess Armenian Seminary. Furthermore, the renovation of the Diocesan Center and St. Vartan Cathedral complex brought new income to the Diocese through rentals. We feel the challenge, but the mission continues. We cut our diocesan budget this year by about $500,000. We tried to be careful not to cut programs. This was well managed by the Diocesan Council. It is difficult to say how things will progress but hopefully the economy will improve.”

Although a good part of each year’s budget is covered by various restricted funds, the Diocese still needs to raise $700,000 to $800,000 in the Annual Appeal each year.

One of the important issues the Primate feels he has had an impact on is the issue of the unity of the Armenian Church: “The administrative separation of the Armenian Church is an unfortunate [phenomenon]. As Primate, it has been my goal to create a more loving, caring and healing atmosphere, where people, respect and trust each other in order to restore the administrative unity of the Armenian Church.”

Some efforts have recently taken place. A few years ago, a committee was created with the blessings of the Catholicoi of All Armenians and the Great House of Cilicia chaired by Barsamian and Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan.

The Primate declared, “We have had a few good meetings in Echmiadzin. Coming together and speaking about issues is useful. We respect each other in our disagreement.” Though the Primate felt the two catholicoi have a pivotal role to play in working for unity, “At every level, grassroots to clerical, we can all support unity.” Furthermore, though people should feel free to follow differing political ideologies as Armenians, in the church they should put ideology aside: “We should feel one in our faith.”

Despite the recent efforts, it is unclear when and whether actual union will take place. After pondering the issue, Barsamian exclaimed: “I hope and pray that administrative unity will take place in my lifetime.”

On a broader ecumenical level, St. Vartan Cathedral has hosted events bringing important religious leaders together. Barsamian declared, “People say that this is a place which brings people together. We have luncheons and receptions, and so we keep good relations with other religious organizations. They know and respect the Armenian Church.”

The archbishop has enjoyed good personal relations with several popes. He particularly admires Pope John Paul II: “He remained proudly Polish until the end of his life. Because he was confident in his identity, he was open with the world and appreciated different cultures and traditions. That is also my philosophy.”

Barsamian has also been involved in leadership roles with the National Council of Churches, the American Bible Society, and the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. These contacts have been very useful for the church and Armenia. For example, it was at an Appeal of Conscience gathering after the 1988 earthquake that the Primate met a key person from the State Department. This led to an arrangement for US aid to Armenia to be supervised by the Diocese. The Primate still maintains good relations with USAID, and with the various US ambassadors to Armenia: “As a church, we believe that it is helpful for society and the country to have these relations.”

Aside from being actively involved in Echmiadzin as a member of the Supreme Spiritual Council, and being close to Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, the Primate maintains good relations with Armenian state officials. He does not get involved in domestic Armenian politics but aids Armenia no matter what government is in power. However, “If I see injustice or something wrong in Armenia, I do speak up. That is why some of the Fund for Armenian Relief programs protect people — like child protection.”

Continuing Challenges

Barsamian said he feels that the Armenian Genocide continues to be an important issue:

“Genocide is a human issue — namely, the killing of innocent people. That is against God’s will. Life is a gift of God. We as human beings, as Christians, are obliged to protect that gift. If anyone is acting against that, we have to voice our opposition. What happened in 1915 to the Armenians is a crime against humanity. It is not only personal to me and my family and other Armenian families, but is also an international issue.”

Barsamian wants the Genocide to be recognized, like the Holocaust, so that hopefully similar atrocities won’t be repeated. “Closure” is most important for him: “The Turks accepting this happened is the most important thing for me. The present Turks are not responsible for what happened but they have to accept that this happened in the past. If my grandfather killed someone, it may be hard for me to accept this, but acceptance would bring closure. We live in this world not to fight but to enjoy one another.”

The archbishop feels that he must personally act, for he has a stake in this issue: “My role is to speak about this historic fact. I have spoken with Turks and Turkish officials about it. When I speak about it with Turks, my intent is not to attack the individual but to help him or her understand. I think that at the least the Turks I spoke with were listening. I think that there has to be a relationship to find a solution to conflict.” He worked with people like the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder and president of Atlantic Records: “He was a friend of mine who visited the Diocese several times. He said very openly that he recognized the Armenian Genocide, and spoke about this with his Turkish friends.”

Barsamian pointed to the example of the 2001 Diocesan pilgrimage called “In the Footsteps of St. Gregory the Illuminator” as a “breakthrough.” It began in Turkey with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in Caesarea (Kayseri), where St. Gregory was baptized, and concluded in Armenia with Divine Liturgy in Echmiadzin. Close to 300 Armenians participated.

“The point is that it created a positive atmosphere on both sides.”

The archbishop sees positive general changes in American society over the last 30 years, which have their corresponding reverberations for Armenians. Young Armenian-Americans are well educated and hold good positions in society. Unlike the preceding generations of Armenian-Americans, “They don’t have any conflicts in themselves — namely, they don’t hide their identities or change their names. They feel very proud as Americans, and if we give them the opportunity, they also feel very proud as Armenians and they express that. Our role as the Armenian Church is to help these young Armenian-Americans to understand and appreciate their identity and see what treasures exist therein.”

The Primate feels that there are more people involved in Armenian community life in the US today than 30 years ago. The existence of an independent Armenia is one factor that has led to this situation: “People now have an independent country and flag with which to identify. Many people visit Armenia, and return reborn.”

He has some concerns with the situations in the patriarchates of Istanbul and Jerusalem. “In Istanbul, Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan is unfortunately seriously ill, without the prospect of a cure, so recently a vicar was elected. I believe under these circumstances, a new patriarch should be elected.”

In Jerusalem, “Patriarch Torkom Manoogian, one of the most dedicated and active hierarchs of the Armenian Church serves in a very demanding post despite his advanced age. His contributions to the church in general and the Eastern Diocese in particular are unforgettable.” However, in Jerusalem “he does not have the proper support system and we need to reevaluate the organization and structure.”

The Future

Barsamian feels that the Armenian Church had an historic mission which contemporary Armenians need to rediscover and return to: “The mission of the Armenian Church was clearly expressed at the Battle of Avarayr [in the fifth century; also called Vartanants]. It is simple and profound. The laypeople and the clergy told it to the Persians — our faith is part of our identity. This faith is expressed in daily life in the family and in business, in all relationships with people.” This period, he continued, was a golden age created by clergy, with the Armenian alphabet, Armenian-language Bible and a rich spiritual and cultural heritage from which we can all benefit.

Today, “we have to return to the spirit of Vartanants. We have to realize that real Armenian identity, which was clearly manifested there.” He feels that there are some important elements to this identity: “We definitely have to keep the Armenian language, as it is part of our identity and culture.” The problem is that throughout the diaspora, the second and third generations of Armenians often don’t have the opportunity to learn it, as they live dispersed from one another. His solution? “What we try to do at the Diocesan level is to use modern technology like websites to help teach language to our children. We have programs at camps like St. Vartan or Hye Camp teaching faith, culture and language.”

For the time being, although there is the issue of what should be taught — Eastern Armenian or Western Armenian — the Diocese gives precedence to Western Armenian.

The issue of English-language Divine Liturgy was a controversial one a few years ago, but does not seem to be in the public eye as much now: “We have to be pastoral and listen, like a father in a family. Our goal as a church is to hear people, and to reach out to everyone. Our mission as a church is to teach our treasures, including the Badarak [Divine Liturgy], to understand these mysteries.” Even if the language is not fully understood, Sunday school students are brought to Badarak “to feel the mystery, the power of the Holy Spirit through prayers, singing and movements. … We are keeping the Armenian-language Badarak, but teaching our youth more about faith and spirituality as an experience. Scriptural readings and sermons are done both in Armenian and in English and some special services in English — when there is a need. The whole point is that we have as our intent to create unity with each other and with God.”

Obtaining well-trained pastors is very important for much of the work of the Diocese: “One priest can change the entire life of a parish. I can give you many examples.” At present, there are approximately 60 priests in the Diocese, some of whom are already retired. Ideally, 10 more clergymen should be prepared: “This is why we focus on vocation, and bring to the attention of the parishes that priests have to emerge from their midst.”

At the same time, the youth continue as a focus for the Primate: “We have to pass on leadership to the young generation. They need to begin to take on roles. And be invited.” The Primate wishes to further develop educational programs for the youth, and adults too, while continuing his efforts to improve the administrative management of the Diocesan Center and obtain further financial support for its activities.

Overall, the Primate is pleased with his work and looks forward to many more years of productive service to the Armenian Church and people: “I enjoy what I am doing. It has been a privilege serving in this Diocese, which has a history of over 100 years. Thank God it has such wonderful leaders, clergy and laymen, who set a great foundation. It has grown and continues to grow. I was happy that we were able to consecrate eight new churches and ordain 23 new clergymen in our Diocese. I enjoy working with the Diocesan Council members and the staff here. We intend to create a family atmosphere of respect and cooperation. In the parishes, I know there are so many dedicated, wonderful people. My job includes much traveling, but I enjoy what I’m doing. For me, titles are not important. I am doing something and there is a result. I would be equally happy working in a parish as a pastor where there is a result.”

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