Church Politics and Political Church


Conflict and competition between the spiritual and temporal world are old trends in history and no nation is immune from them. A remarkable chapter in British history is the confrontation between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 12th century. They were, at the beginning, close friends but had a falling out when the king tried to usurp the church’s rights. The king was so infuriated with the resistance that he had the archbishop murdered in the cathedral on December 29, 1170. Later on, the king repented and was absolved by the church. Thomas Becket was declared a saint and remains to this day a symbol of  a hero who stood up to a tyrant.

Armenians have their own martyr in the cathedral in the person of Archbishop Ghevont Tourian who was murdered during a Christmas Eve service, in 1933, at the Holy Cross Church in New York.

He was killed by the ARF (Dashnag) party because he refused to bow to their political demands. In the Armenian version of the story, the murderers have not repented to this day and instead of the martyred cleric, the criminals were canonized by the party, although the US justice system had sent them to Sing Sing Penitentiary.

In 1956, the Dashnag Party, with the support of the Lebanese government, took over the Antelias Church, the Catholicosate of Cilicia; they threw out the majority of the outraged clergy and elected one of the docile bishops, Bishop Zareh Payaslyan, as catholicos, contrary to the canons of the Armenian Church, which calls for three bishops to anoint a new catholicos. They had only two: the notorious Archbishop Khoren Paroyan and the wretched Archbishop Ghevont Chebeyan.

After the takeover of the Catholicosate in Lebanon, dissident churches in the US, which were already under the party’s control, came under the See of Antelias.

These recollections lead us to the modern days of church-state relations. During the Soviet era, the church had no power whatsoever. But the Soviets had studied the spiritual role of Holy Echmiadzin in the world Armenian community and they used it to their political advantage. In the meantime, the Holy See survived, mostly through the wisdom of the pontiff at the helm, His Holiness Catholicos Vasken I.

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In order to be able to use an object or an entity, one must study the nature of that subject fully. An analogy may be found in Picasso’s art; the artist deconstructs human figures and reconstructs them through his vision creating a new harmony and wholeness.

Our church in Armenia has been misused (or unused) by the authorities and the people in general, because no one has cared to figure out or account for the degree of lack of knowledge in dealing with the church.

During the previous administration, Holy Echmiadzin and the Catholicos had no other choice but to stand by the authorities. After the Velvet Revolution, that policy became an issue. The extreme wing of the enthusiastic revolutionary crowd thoughtlessly believed that with the departure of the old regime, everything else should go; “New Homeland, New Catholicos” slogan became the mantra of the day and His Holiness Karekin II was even physically harassed by a crowd agitated by the teachings of an atheist regime.

Ever since independence, no serious effort has been exerted for a widescale religious education program nor introducing religious studies on the history of the Armenian Church in the school curricula. The outcome of that negligence certainly manifests itself in the misconceptions about the church’s role and consequently, the ignorance with regard to the church and church leaders.

Finally, the new government has realized that it needs a proper venue to deal with the church.

A commission has been set up composed of several deputy ministers, to operate under the aegis of the prime minister’s office. We are not certain of the competence of the members appointed to that body and whether they are knowledgeable about church matters or will be learning it on the job. One omission is obvious: that the diaspora’s input is ignored at their own peril.

When the Catholicos was physically harassed, the statement by the government officials said there is a separation between the church and state, which only encouraged the attackers. Even if the authorities had to adhere to the principle of separation of church and state, they were still duty-bound to protect the pontiff’s physical wellbeing.

As the issue of the Catholicos and church and state relations evolve, it turns out that those statements were not benign nor innocent. At this time, a subtext is emerging to prove how poor in understanding and knowledge those government officials are.

Incidentally, Armenians are not alone in church politics issues, as a parallel drama is being played out in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church severed its relations with the head of the Ecumenical Orthodox Church Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, because the Patriarchate there has been reduced to a shell of its former self. In addition, the standoff between Russia and Ukraine has filtered down to the church level as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has severed its relations with the Orthodox Church in Russia. Just a few days ago, President Petro Proshenko anointed a new patriarch to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The campaigners against the Catholicos in Echmiadzin had been questioning the method and procedures of his election to the throne, while cooking another illegal scheme behind the scenes. The media has discovered there was a plan to invite His Holiness Aram I to Echmiadzin to take over the Mother Church, irrespective of the sentiments of the church leaders and members worldwide.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s political mentor, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, once committed that illegal move and failed miserably, because he was not aware of the role of the church in the life of the Armenians, despite his scholarly background.

He believed that by moving Catholicos Karekin II of Cilicia to Echmiadzin, where he became Catholicos Karekin I of Echmiadzin, he would solve with a magic wand the division in the Armenian Church. It proved to be a failed policy, because a more robust successor took his place in Antelias, Aram I, who controls the church at the behest of the ARF. Moving Aram I to Echmiadzin will not solve the church division. From the perspective of the dissident church, Antelias was opposing Holy Echmiadzin because the latter was under Soviet control But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that argument also collapsed and the truth is revealed by all its nakedness, that the dissident church is a lucrative business venture for the party and an outlet for influence.

The news site 168hours has found through its investigations that the My Step alliance members Alain Simonian, Lena Nazarian and Hratchia Hagopian, had been dispatched to Lebanon to explore the feasibility of the plot. The author of the article explains that the delegates were planning to extend the Velvet Revolution all the way to the church. The author also believes that police inaction when the Catholicos was harassed in Vayk and when campaigners erected tents on the border of the  Echmiadzin campus were deliberate acts, encouraged by the authorities.

Following the unsuccessful mission of the delegates, Prime Minister Pashinyan himself approached Catholicos Aram I, when he attended the celebration of the latter’s 50th anniversary of priesthood. The Catholicos turned down the prime minister’s offer, perhaps remembering the disastrous outcome of Ter-Petrosian’s plan.

All these immature and amateurish actions are emblematic of inexperience, particularly in church matters.

We need to be reminded that the sole purpose of the Velvet Revolution was to overthrow the corrupt regime and to restore the legitimacy of the government. Diversions into foreign policy or church matters were never on the table.

A case in point demonstrates the dangerous ignorance of some of the new leaders. It is true that people in Armenia are proud to see young professionals, many without deep pockets, in leadership positions. But they had not bargained for the inexperience of those leaders.

Arayik Harutyunyan, the minister of education, science and culture, recently visited a school in the Ararat province. Coming across a priest in the school named Rev. Ghazar Petrossyan, he ordered the priest to leave the premises immediately, adding that everybody must abide by the law, even the clergy and the minister. The priest left the school frustrated by the behavior of the “uneducated minister of education” and the education minister said that by law, the priest belongs in the church.

In fact, a law enacted on February 22, 2007, calls for the Armenian Apostolic Church to espouse religious programs in public schools.

A second article of the law defines that “the Armenian Apostolic Church is duty-bound to develop religious studies, textbooks and teacher-training programs.” Section 4 of the law calls for the Armenian Apostolic Church to participate in the religious education of the public institution programs to that effect.”

A good place to begin would be to develop a curriculum of religious education, starting with the history of the Armenian Church.

Teaching the theology or the dogma of the church may raise questions, but the history of the church can be part of academic studies.

The divide between the public and the church is the outcome of decades of atheistic and anti-clerical campaigns. The knowledge of the history and the mission of the church is an urgent need, so that the public may understand the role and importance of the church and avoid taking a negative position.

Once the church history classes are offered at schools, perhaps Minister Harutyunyan can become their first beneficiary.

A recent development underscores the role of the Catholicos in Echmiadzin. For eleven years, the Istanbul Armenians have been applying to the Turkish authorities for permission to elect a new patriarch to no avail, as the current patriarch is not fit to serve because of Alzheimer’s.

On February 4, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu received Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, pontifical legate at the Vatican and Western Europe, sent at the behest of Catholicos Karekin II, to discuss matters related to the Armenian Church in Turkey. When the Catholicos at Echmiadzin commands such respect among friends and foes, like the Pope and Mr. Çavusoglu, it is not wise to undermine his authority at home.

The church is an important institution that needs proper handling. Besides, it plays a vital role in the spiritual life of Armenians. It is one of the bridges spanning Armenia and the diaspora.

The Church has been used as a political pawn by many parties but if it is elevated to its venerable position on a pedestal, it can play its own role in the spiritual guidance of the masses and in the process become a stalwart foundation helping the homeland.





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