Dangerous Trends in the Armenian Church


By Edmond Y. Azadian

The knife that was lodged into Archbishop Ghevont Tourian’s heart in 1933, killing him instantly and dividing the Armenian Church ever since, continues to play its destructive role in the Armenian community. Some people do not wish to be reminded of that gory incident because if the story is pushed into oblivion, they believe the schism within the Armenian Church may be legitimized.

The takeover of a number of dissident churches in America in the 1930s by the Dashnag party was compounded by further acts of violence when the same party usurped the Catholicosate of Antelias in 1956 on the heels of the tanks of the Lebanese army.

No sensible member of the Armenian Church can wish away these sad facts of history, as long as the Armenian Church continues to be divided and one segment of that church remains tributary to a political party.

Since 1956 the Catholicosate of Antelias has extended its tentacles toward other communities. The specter of the Cold War helped the leaders of that See to bring under its aegis the Diocese in Iran and part of the Diocese in Greece, as well as consolidating its grip over dissident churches in the US and Canada.

Throughout the Cold War years, this campaign against the Holy See of Echmiadzin was “justified” under the banner of war against communism. When the communist system collapsed, it was evident that the emperor was indeed naked. The excuse for the church division had thus evaporated, but because the political party was entrenched in the system it refused to lose its cash cow, and the division continued.

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Members of Prelacy churches are well indoctrinated to justify the division. The same militancy is lacking in the rest of the community.

This aloofness certainly helps the leaders of the Antelias church.

Over the years, many attempts were made and many initiatives were undertaken to unite the church, to no avail.

His Holiness Catholicos Karekin II has tried to negotiate with Antelias to develop uniform bylaws for the entire Armenian Church but thus far, he has not succeeded. A joint committee on rites and rituals has been active. However, those rites have not been in dispute in any way.

While Holy Echmiadzin has been hard at work to spark a spiritual awakening in Armenia after 70 years of atheist rule, it has had to fight the assault of alien sects while watching out for challenges posed by a militant church in Antelias. Plot after plot is being hatched in different communities by the Catholicosate of Cilicia to undermine the authority of theMother See. Antelias seems to be alarmed by the rate of educated clergy being produced by Echmiadzin to serve spiritual needs in Armenia and in the diaspora.

His Holiness has also undertaken the daunting task of developing uniform bylaws throughout the churches under his jurisdiction. For many decades, priests and Primates have wreaked havoc with the authority of the Holy See, either through incompetence or ego trips. Of course, any change — for that matter positive change — will come at the expense of long-entrenched habits and positions.

The Catholic Church is strong because the Pope appoints the cardinals to different dioceses and the practice is accepted universally. Our church has more democratic traditions and cannot afford that kind of authoritarianism.

But by the same token, a sense of harmony and respect for hierarchical authority is needed now for our church to function in this era of globalization.

Disconcerting rumblings have already begun in some European communities, because certain quarters cannot stand to see the consolidation of the authority of the Mother See throughout the Armenian Church.

Anonymous articles are being planted in the papers that practice yellow journalism in Armenia and they are being dispatched to the diaspora papers with wider circulations. Of course, very few conscientious journalists in the diaspora have the time and habit of checking their sources, before falling into the trap of those mischievous groups.

A case in point is two articles published in an obscure paper with a small circulation in Armenia called Hrabarag. The unsigned articles claim that the French-Armenian Diocese has revolted against the authority of Holy Echmiadzin. Using scare tactics, these articles also blame His Holiness, that he wants to control the financial resources of the Diocese. People who have been totally indifferent of the exploitation and the expropriation of the Dashnag party in the dissident church, all of a sudden have become guardians of the church assets against alleged “plots” by His Holiness.

In Armenia, anyone can buy space in these marginal publications for the purpose of character assassination, because libel laws are virtually non-existent or non enforceable. Once that innuendo is planted in the print media, it can be exported to the diaspora.

It is surprising that a responsible daily paper in Istanbul, Marmara, has fallen into that trap by reproducing both articles from Hrabarag, the second one supposedly sent from Bulgaria, about the church in that community.

This trend of disrespect, which tends to erode the authority of Holy Echmiadzin, benefits directly the Catholicosate of Antelias, which has triggered a rivalry with Echmiadzin. But it was also instigated by an entirely unlikely party: former president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosian, who tried to use His Holiness for his short-term political goals, as did the Turks with Archbishop Mesrob Mutafian. The Dashnags also have been using Catholicos Aram I and his predecessors, but in this case, the ploy backfired because Catholicos Karekin II decided to play a mediating role after the bloody clashes in the aftermath of the last presidential election. Former President Ter-Petrosian refused to open his door to receive His Holiness and following that stand off, he launched a vicious campaign on the ugliest level through the news media under his control, namely Haykakan Jamanak and Chorrord Ishkhanoutioun. Hrabarag also seems to be the offshoot of the opposition media, although very few people are familiar with its name.

Unfortunately the Mother See was unsuccessfully tried to be dragged into internecine politics, and when His Holiness refused to compromise his role as mediator, he became a target of unsavory labels and insinuations.

In response to the allegations labeled against Echmiadzin in the yellow media the Holy See has released a communiqué whereby it states: “The concerns aired by the daily Hrabarag on February 5 that the French-Armenian community is unhappy with Echmiadzin are baseless, and do not correspond to the reality.

“We hereby inform that in November of 2009, during the convocation held in Echmiadzin, Primates and lay delegates representing their respective dioceses agreed on the fundamental bylaws for all the dioceses of the Armenian Apostolic Church, clarifying the basic principles of the church bylaws.”

It seems that the scare tactics used by those dark forces have also been creeping on our shores, under the most dignified labels.

Upholding the authority of the Mother See is in the interest of the entire Armenian people. As globalization brings people and communities together, it is a foregone conclusion that different communities will look for similar rules and regulations for the sake of harmony within the body of Armenian Church.

The Holy Echmiadzin does not have any temporal force to generate respect, but for centuries the healthy and robust instincts of its believers have upheld its authority and sanctity.

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