Supporters of Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan rally at the Sardarapat war memorial, May 28, 2024.

Police Confront Armenian Church Head at War Memorial

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By Shoghik Galstian

YEREVAN (azatutyun.am) — Police tried to stop the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II, from visiting a war memorial on Tuesday, May 28, as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan led there an official ceremony to mark the 106th anniversary of an independent Armenian republic.

Riot police confront Catholicos Karekin II and other top clergymen at Sardarapat memorial, May 28, 2024

The short-lived republic was officially set up on March 28, 1918 as Armenian army and militia units defeated Ottoman Turkish forces trying to occupy Yerevan and the rest of modern-day Armenia. The decisive battle was fought from May 22-29, 1918 around Sardarapat, a village about 50 kilometers west of Yerevan.

The anniversary has been a public holiday in Armenia, called Republic Day, since the Soviet collapse. The country’s current and former leaders have marked it at a memorial built near Sardarapat in the late 1960s. The official ceremonies there have traditionally been held in the morning.

Pashinyan and other top state officials visited the memorial in the afternoon this time around apparently because it was occupied on Monday night by hundreds of antigovernment protesters demanding his resignation. The protesters led by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan spent the night there in what looked like an attempt to disrupt the anticipated ceremony. They returned to Yerevan at around noon on Tuesday after celebrating the holiday with patriotic songs and a speech delivered by Galstanyan.

Catholicos Karekin and other senior clergymen arrived at Sardarapat a couple of hours later. Amateur videos shot at the scene showed them running into lines of riot police that kept them a hundred meters from a monument where Pashinyan addressed officials, soldiers and border guards on the occasion.

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They managed to get through the police cordon after a brief altercation with the policemen. Catholicos Karekin then laid a wreath and prayed at the memorial.

In a statement released later in the day, the Echmiadzin-based Mother See of the Armenian Church deplored the “condemnable behavior” and “violent actions” of the security forces. It described the incident as “yet another manifestation of shameful and anti-national activities of the authorities.”

The ancient church, to which the vast majority of Armenians belong, officially voiced support for Galstanyan and his supporters on May 7 as they marched from the Tavush province to Yerevan to protest against Pashinyan’s territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. The outspoken archbishop demanded Pashinyan’s resignation when he rallied tens of thousands of people in the capital two days later. His continuing campaign for regime change has been joined or endorsed by virtually all Armenian opposition groups.

Pashinyan rejected the demands, defending the land transfer to Baku. He and his political allies have attacked Galstanyan and the church as a whole over the past month, threatening to impose new taxes on it.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan gives a speech at the Sardarapat war memorial, May 28, 2024

Galstanyan acknowledged on May 21 that he regularly discusses the protest movement with Karekin. During another mass rally held on Sunday, the 53-year-old archbishop, who has until now headed the church’s Tavush Diocese, announced that he has asked the Catholicos to suspend his “spiritual service” in view of his political activities. Catholicos Karekin’s office announced on Monday that Galstanyan has been relieved of his “ecclesiastical and administrative” duties while retaining his episcopal rank.

The protest leader on Tuesday pledged to continue the antigovernment protests. He urged supporters to gather outside a Yerevan church for that purpose on Wednesday morning.

Pashinyan’s relationship with the church has increasingly deteriorated since the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Catholicos Karekin II and other senior clergymen joined the Armenian opposition in calling for Pashinyan’s resignation following Armenia’s defeat in the six-week war. They have also blamed Pashinyan for Azerbaijan’s September 2023 recapture of Karabakh and the resulting mass exodus of the region’s ethnic Armenian population.

Pashinyan and his entourage have boycotted Christmas and Easter liturgies led by Catholicos Karekin for the past three years. They accuse the clergy of meddling in politics. Catholicos Karekin and his bishops say they cannot stay silent in the face of what they call existential threats to Armenia resulting from Pashinyan’s misrule.

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