Church-State Relations in Armenia

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The Armenian Church has played a central role in Armenian history. When Armenia lost its sovereignty, the church replaced the role of the state. That is apparent particularly in the Ottoman era. The Sultans recognized the very special place the Armenian Church occupied and also found the church to be a convenient vehicle to regulate the internal affairs of the Armenian millet.

Thus, the Sultan recognized and approved the Armenian National Constitution in 1863. Similarly, the Russian Tsar used Bolozhenia, the constitution for Armenia, to regulate the affairs of the Armenian Church in the Russian Empire.

Even today some of the guiding principles from those eras are used in communities in the diaspora.

During the Soviet period, the clergy were persecuted and church properties were confiscated. However, the Soviet leaders recognized the part that the Armenian Church could play in bridging relations with the homeland, and hence they created an office to regulate or oversee church affairs.

When the Soviet regime began exercising its plans and principles of molding the Soviet individual, they had to deconstruct his or her moral and religious values and infuse the citizen with new values. With the collapse of the Soviet system, that social engineering task also fell apart. For most citizens of Armenia, the church or religion in general had superficial value, as per the Soviet system. That is why today, the general public in Armenia is vulnerable to the lure of religious sects promising anything and everything and the Armenian church authorities cannot respond adequately.

For the Armenian citizen, the role model of a religious leader remains Catholicos Vasken I and in the public perception, no other leader has yet met that moral compass.

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Since the Armenian Church still has the calling to resume its historic role across the board in Armenia and in the diaspora, it has to reform itself and regulate its affairs with the state.

For several decades now, the constitution or the by-laws of the Armenian Church have not been finalized impacting its role as a moral authority.

Ever since Armenia’s independence, the leadership similarly shared the mindset of the average citizen regarding its assessment of the role of the Armenian Church, finding it tangential at best to Armenian life.

The first president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, was naive enough to believe that he could solve the division in the church through a magic trick, which unfortunately backfired. He invited Karekin II, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia, to Echmiadzin to serve as the Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin I.

Successive presidents did not fare any better; they tried to use the divided segments of the church to their own political ends, rather than helping to unite the church.

Although there has been a formal protocol between the church and the state since the 1990s, the current administration has felt the need to develop a new one after the Velvet Revolution. There is also a clause in Armenia’s current constitution (Article 163-2), recognizing the special place of the Armenian Apostolic Church, whose chaplains are the only ones to serve in the army.

That status has been criticized by the hired guns of the universalists currently active in Armenia. Although the constitution endorses religious freedom, the role of the Armenian Apostolic Church has come under scrutiny. The answer and the argument is a common sense one; since the majority of the Armenians belong to the Apostolic Church, therefore, under majority rule, the Armenian Church should be the state religion.

Since independence, the leadership in Armenia has not developed an analytical approach to the diaspora and consequently has failed to formulate a coherent policy. And that includes the church. The Armenian Church still remains as a diasporan phenomenon to many citizens of Armenia.

A misstatement by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan wreaked havoc in Armenia regarding the church; indeed, he stressed the concept of separation of church and state, abandoning the role of the state as a protector of the church. That misstatement encouraged people with their own agendas to launch a campaign against the Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II. Mr. Pashinyan soon realized the impact of his statement and ever since, has been trying to mend fences with the Catholicos. Indeed, both parties have taken concrete steps to return some rationality into the discourse.

The prime minister and the catholicos held a joint meeting on May 3 to regulate the relations between the church and the state. Reading their opening remarks, one can still detect a divergence of opinions on the issue but the two groups will continue the work to come up with a new protocol.

The Catholicos’ remarks highlight three major principles: To recognize the Armenian Apostolic Church as the national church in Armenia, similar to the national churches in Scandinavia; the church and the state are separate entities but not antagonistic to each other and finally, the state has to return to the church properties confiscated during the Soviet period.

That last issue entails two different items: properties that are income bearing or the the ancient churches and monasteries which need tremendous amounts of investment to maintain their historic value.

From a rather verbose statement by Mr. Pashinyan, one can detect two ideas: that the state has to tax the church properties and business activities, and second, the prime minister believes upholding more general Christian values than accepting the special role of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

This last concept is promoted by foreign religious sects’ NGOs currently active in Armenia to undermine the traditional value system of the populace.

Communism upheld the universal rights of the masses but ended up destroying individual nations. The same role may play the emphasis on general Christian values versus the role of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The prime minister has also confessed that he read the Bible recently and the values represented in the Holy Book directly conform with the value system of his political party, My Step.

We do hope that there are more sophisticated religious scholars in both parties to come up with equitable solutions and a comprehensive protocol to resolve the outstanding issues rather than avoiding them.

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