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The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Holy Church Today

…By Archbishop Nareg Alemezian


Holy Cross Church - Akhtamar - Lake Van

1. Introduction


The official name of the Armenian Church is Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Holy Church.

‘Armenian’ denotes its ethnicity; it is the Church of Armenia and Armenians.

‘Apostolic’ confirms that it was founded by St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, designated as the First Illuminators of Armenia, two of the twelve apostles of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Also, ‘Apostolic’ because it carries out the apostolic ministry entrusted to it. Finally, its apostolicity bears testimony to its autocephaly.

‘Orthodox’ refers to its Orthodox faith and belonging to the Family of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

‘Holy’ identifies its holiness and capacity of leading its faithful to holiness.

‘Church’ makes it a community of the faithful believing in and witnessing theChristian life in communion with God through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Armenian Church[1]belongs to the family of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which has seven members:

1. Armenian Church - Catholicosate of All Armenians (headquarters in Armenia)

2. Armenian Church - Catholicosate of Cilicia (headquarters in Lebanon)

3. Coptic Church (headquarters in Egypt)

4. Syrian Church (headquarters in Syria)

5. Indian Malankara Church (headquarters in India)

6. Ethiopian Church (headquarters in Ethiopia)

7. Eritrean Church (headquarters in Eritrea)


2. Historical Highlights


Armenia is the land of the sacred Mount Ararat, on which Noah’s Ark rested after the flood (Genesis 8.4).

Christianity in Armenia was a hidden and persecuted religion during the first three centuries AD. The Armenian Church commemorates many Armenian martyrs of this time.

In 301, Christianity was officially accepted by the Armenians as the state religion. St. Gregory the Illuminator, supported by King Tiridates III played a pivotal role in the christianization of Armenia. It is a well recognized historical fact that the Armenians were the first nation to declare Christianity as state religion.

Greek and Syriac were the liturgical languages used in the Armenian Church services. In 405, the Holy Bible was translated into Armenian, being the driving force for the invention of the Armenian alphabet still in use today. French scholar Lamark assesses the Armenian translation of the Holy Bible as the queen of the translations. The first sentence translated into Armenian was Proverbs 1.1: “To know wisdom and instruction and to perceive words of understanding.”

Foreseeing the spiritual and cultural needs of the faithful, a monk, St. Mesrob Mashdotz (355-439), created the Armenian alphabet, under the auspices of Catholicos Sahag (348-438), in order to make the Christian faith accessible to the people in a written form. Soon after the invention of the alphabet, St. Mesrob together with St. Sahag and a group of associates, known as holy translators, also translated the biblical, theological and liturgical writings of eminent Church fathers. This was followed by the organization of the liturgical life in the composition of the books of the holy eucharist, the rituals, the order of consecration of churches, the daily prayer hours and the church calendar. This era is identified as the golden ageof Armenian history, while a literal-cultural revival in the 12thcentury in Cilicia is defined as the silver age.

One of the most significant events in Armenian Christianity is the Battle of Sts. Vartanantz in 451 (May 26). When the edict of the Persian king YazdigertII reached Armenia, ordering Armenians to renounce Christ and embrace Zoroastrianism, Armenians remained loyal to their faith and responded, “For we recognize the Holy Gospel as our Father, and the apostolic catholic Church as our Mother. Let no evil partition come between us to separate us from her”(Eghishe, History of Vardan and the Armenian War, translated into English by Robert W. Thomson, Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 118).

Headed by St. Vartan Mamigonian, Armenians fought against the Persians on the battlefield of Avarair to preserve their Christian faith. Vartan, speaking of the king Yazdigert II, powerfully expresses the depth of the commitment of the Armenians: “He who supposes that we put on Christianity like a garment, now realizes that as he cannot change the color of his skin, so he will perhaps never be able to accomplish his designs. For the foundation of our faith are set on the unshakable rock, not on earth but above in heaven”(History of Vardan and the Armenian War, pp.154-155).

For the next thirty years resistance followed, until in 485, in the Treaty of Nevarsag, the Persian king Peroz declared full toleration of Christian faith and the formal recognition of the Armenian Church.

“The Treaty of Nevarsak is celebrated by Armenians as the first known treaty to guarantee the right of a nation to practice its religion. Accomplished after much suffering and death, it stands as a testimony to the will of the Armenian people to reject all forms of tyranny and to live and worship freely as Christians”(Light from Light, p. 91).

The following centuries were difficult periods for the Armenians:

· 5th-9thcenturies they suffered under the Persian rule (430-634) and later Arab domination (640-851).

· In the 9thcentury (654-885) there was an independent kingdom of the Bagratids in Armenia (885-1079), however it ended in the 11thcentury by the invasion of Seljuks.

· In Cilicia, Armenians enjoyed an independent rule in the 11th-14thcenturies (1080-1375).

· Large number of Armenians were massacred by the Turks in the Ottoman Empire starting in the late 19thcentury to the early 20thcentury.

· Armenians suffered under the Russians starting in 1893 until early 1980’s.

· In 1915 Turks perpetrated the Armenian Genocide by killing one and half million Armenians and deporting the survivors from their homeland.

· 1918-1920 Armenians founded an independent republic.

· In 1920 Soviet regime was forcefully established in Armenia.

· In 1991 Armenia declared its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Republic of Armenia shares borders with Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey.


3. Faith and Worship


· Dogma and Christology

The dogma and Christology of the Armenian Church are based on the Holy Bible, Holy Tradition and the teachings and the decisions of the three Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381) and Ephesus (431). It does not accept the Council of Chalcedon (451). It renounces the heretical teachings of Nestorius and Eutyches.

The Armenian Church professes its faith in the context of its liturgical life. Its worship constitutes a prime vehicle for teaching its faith, articulated in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed recited during the holy eucharist.


· Worship

The Armenian Churchhas seven daily liturgical prayer offices or services. It celebrates the holy eucharist on Sundays and special feasts days.

The religious calendar of the Armenian Churchis composed of dominical days, saints’ days and fasting days.


· Holy Eucharist

The holy eucharist of the Armenian Church is mainly based on the liturgy of St. Basil of Caesarea and partly on the liturgies of St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom. Proper additions were made by St. Gregory the Illuminator (239-325) and St. Gregory of Nareg (951-1003). It is celebrated in classical Armenian. The Armenian Church uses unleavened bread and unmixed wine for its holy eucharist.

Throughout their tumultuous history, Armenians have found ultimate hope and meaning in the holy communion with God in the holy eucharist. In this ‘great mystery’, as the Armenian Church fathers called it, the faithful dedicate themselves to God in a symbolic offering of bread and wine. The same bread and wine become a gift from God when he transforms them into the body and blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, the holy eucharist is the self-offering of the Church to God and the self-offering of God to the Church in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, as expressed by him, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him”(John 6.56).

The greatest mystery of the Christian faith and a highpoint of the holy eucharist is the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, when God, the Father, shares his divinity with his Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and with his Holy Spirit, three persons united in one God. When the hymn ‘Spirit of God’is chanted during the holy eucharist, the celebrant calls on the Father to send his Holy Spirit upon all of the assembled faithful and on the gifts of bread and wine, to make them truly the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our ultimate desire and prayer is that in the holy eucharist the Holy Spirit will unite all the faithful together with each other and with Christ by way of his body and blood, so that we will truly come to constitute the Church in its fullest sense.


· Seven Sacraments

The seven sacraments of the Armenian Church are the following:

· Baptism. Infants are baptized by immersion, in the name of the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

· Confirmation. The baptizing priest administers confirmation by holy chrism conjointly with baptism and afterwards the baptized receives holy communion.

· Penance. Confession takes place according to a general formula publicly read in the church and a priest grants absolution.

· Holy communion. It is administered to the baptized by the clergy without distinction of age, in both elements, by means of a piece of the consecrated wafer, consisting of unleavened bread soaked in wine, with no addition of water.

· Matrimony. The priest blesses it in the church. Divorce is canonically granted by the decree of the Catholicos only in cases of severe conditions.

· Ordination. The bishop confers it by the imposition of hands. After ordination, priests, bishops and catholicoi are consecrated by holy chrism.

· Unction of the sick. It is administered by the priest in the form of scriptural reading and prayer for the faithful and last rites of anointing with holy chrism for the clergymen.

A bishop or a priest administers the seven sacraments, but only a bishop has the authority of administering the sacrament of ordination.


4. Hierarchy and Conciliar Functioning


In the hierarchy of the Armenian Church there are the minor orders of acolyte and deacon and the higher orders of priest (married and celibate), bishop and catholicos. The parish priests are appointed by the diocesan bishop to serve in a parish. The diocesan bishop and the catholicos are elected by electoral bodies consisting of lay and clergy delegates.


· The Church of the Nation

The Armenian Church is a religious and spiritual institution par excellence, but it is also the center of Armenian national life. Ever since its genesis it carried out its spiritual ministry and national mission hand-in-hand.

After the loss of its political independence, Armenian nation centralized all its social and collective, even political life in the Armenian Church. It stood as the only protector of the Armenian culture and nationality. Thus, the history of the Armenian nation is blended with the history of its Church.

The Armenian Church is very precious for Armenians, because it became the source of their Christian formation and a safe haven of their national values. The Armenian Church and nation are intertwined together. The Armenian nation is identified with the Armenian Church and Christian faith and Armenian identity are inseparable.


· The Democratic Spirit

Out of the national and communal makeup of the Armenian Church grows its democratic organization. Laity actively participates and forms the majority in its decision-making and administrative affairs. Laity is largely in charge of the organization and administration of each diocese, where only the religious council is fully composed of clergy.

This democratic spirit has been practiced in the Armenian Church for a long time. We read in the annals of Church Councils that lay representatives have been actively involved in their proceedings.


5. The Hierarchy of the Armenian Church

Today the Armenian Church has four Hierarchical Sees:

· Catholicosate of All Armenians, Holy Etchmiadzin-Armenia, headed by His Holiness Karekin II

· Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, Antelias-Lebanon,headed by His Holiness Aram I

· Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Jerusalem-Holy Land,headed by His Beatitude Torkom Manougian

· Patriarchate of Constantinople, Istanbul-Turkey, headed by His BeatitudeMesrob Mutafian

Each See has its own brotherhood of celibate clergy, ecclesiastical jurisdiction and internal administrative structure. They are not separate Churches, but are part of the one Armenian Church, being one in doctrine, theology, worship and service to the faithful. The two Catholicosates have global jurisdictions. The two Patriarchates have local jurisdictions and in the hierarchy of the Armenian Church their Patriarchs hold the rank of Archbishop by their ordination. The primacy of honor of the Catholicosate of All Armenians has always been respected by the other three Holy Sees.

The total number of Armenians in the world is 9 million. The overwhelmingmajority of Armenians lives in Diaspora and belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church,known as the Mother Church.A small number of Armenians belong to the Armenian Catholic Church and the Armenian Protestant Church.

2 catholicoi, 2 patriarchs, 80 bishops and approximately 600 celibate and married priests serve in the Armenian Church. Only the catholicoi have the authority to bless the holy chrism (muron) and consecrate bishops.


· Two Catholicosates in the One Armenian Church

St. Gregory the Illuminator organized the Armenian Church hierarchy and chose as the site of the Catholicosate the then capital city of Vagharshapat, where Holy Ejmiadzin is located. Because of the continuous political upheavals, the Catholicosate was transferred to various cities, beginning in 471, and was established in 1062 in Cilicia, when the Armenian kingdom also was settled there. In 1441, a new Catholicos, Giragos Virabetsi, was elected in Holy Etchmiadzin, while Krikor Moussapegiants (1439-1446) was the Catholicos in Cilicia. Therefore, due to these historical circumstances and the geographical dispersion of the Armenian people, two Catholicosates have continued to function since 1441, with equal rights and privileges, and with their respective jurisdictions.

During the 1915 Armenian Genocide the Catholicosate in Cilicia was confiscated and destroyed by the Turks. Catholicos Sahak II lived in exile with his flock for 15 years. In 1930 he established the Catholicosate in Antelias, a suburb North of Beirut (Lebanon). Thus, a new era opened in the history of the Catholicosate of Cilicia with the organization of the dioceses and the founding of a new theological seminary.

I believe that a brief introduction to the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia will be appropriate at this point.


· The Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias: A Committed Witness

The Catholicosate of Cilicia is rightly described as a dynamic and committed witness to the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ. This witness incorporates various domains of the life of the Armenian people. Here I will highlight some of the major ones:

1. Throughout its history the Catholicosate has played and continues to play a leading role in the life of the Armenian people, particularly in the educational, cultural and social spheres. It brings an important contribution to the ongoing formation and organization of the world-scattered Armenian Diaspora and the strengthening of the Republic of Armenia.

2. Being itself a victim of the Armenian Genocide, the Catholicosate is active in promoting human rights and, in that very context, the rights of its people in international circles. It also significantly helps building awareness concerning this crime against humanity.

3. The Theological Seminary is the backbone of the Catholicosate as a school for clergy as well as lay leadership formation.

4. Christian education is a vital era of profound concern for the Catholicosate. The department of Christian education organizes seminars on Christian formation, bible study courses and people-oriented activities aimed at spiritual renewal of the Church. The department of Sunday Schools caters to the spiritual needs of the children. The pedagogical institute prepares teachers for Armenian day and Sunday Schools.

5. The Catholicosate contributes to the development of social service, by initiating social projects that touch the daily life of its faithful, such as orphanages, hospitals, community centers and housing complexes.

6. The pivotal role of the Catholicosate in the cultural life of Diaspora deserves special attention. Each year, its printing house publishes hundreds of books; many publication funds are established; book exhibits and fairs, as well as an important number of conferences, seminars, cultural gatherings and concerts are organized. In addition to these important initiatives, the construction of a museum and a library is an eloquent manifestation of its growing involvement in the promotion of Armenian spiritual, moral and cultural values.

7. Women and youth are integral part of the Christian witness of the Catholicosate. Through the department of youth, the Armenian Church Association of University Students, Church-related ladies guilds, and other youth and women organizations and movements, it promotes Christian values and makes the youth and women more active in the life and mission of the Church.

8. Inter-church and inter-faith relations are a high priority for the Catholicosate.

In 1962 the Catholicosate became a member of the World Council of Churches.

In 1998, His Holiness Aram I established the department for ecumenical relations in Antelias to supervise all the inter-church and inter-religious activities on the levels of the Church headquarters and dioceses.

The Catholicosate keeps close relations with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches and plays a key role in promoting theological dialogue and collaboration between them. It has been instrumental in the development of more organized collaboration among the Oriental Orthodox Churches after the meeting of its Heads in Addis Ababa, in 1965, and particularly in the initiation of the annual official meetings of the Heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches in the Middle East, since 1996.

It sent observers to the Second Vatican Council. The visits of Catholicoi to Popes, as well as joint declarations and meetings with the representatives of the Catholic Church greatly enhanced the centuries-old relations between the Armenian and the Catholic Churches.

The relations of the Catholicosate with the Churches of the Middle East are fraternal. As one of the initiators of the ecumenical movement in the region, it took an active part in the foundation of the Middle East Council of Churches in 1974.

It continues with growing impetus its ecumenical relations with the Anglican Communion, the Protestant and the Evangelical Churches and all the Christian World Communions as well as with various ecumenical organizations.

9. Being an integral part of the Middle Eastern society, the Catholicosate works very hard for a just, comprehensive and permanent peace in the Middle East.

10. As a firm believer in co-existence and dialogue, the Catholicosate extends its active and strong support to all efforts aimed at strengthening a shared and harmonious common life among cultures, religions and societies in different parts of the world in general and in the Middle East in particular.

In the last 15 years of his pontificate, His Holiness Aram I, with his worldwide ecumenical experience, spiritual and intellectual insights and pastoral zeal, has given a new impetus and articulation to the witness of the Catholicosate. In fact, the formation of clergy and laity young leadership, the reorganization of the missionary, evangelistic, pastoral and educational ministry of the Armenian Church and the recommitment of the Catholicosate to the ecumenical movement have acquired a decisive importance in the life and service of His Holiness.


6. The Challenges Faced by the Catholicosate of Cilicia Today




The Catholicosate of Cilicia is still in exile in Diaspora, where it finds itself in different contexts and faces various challenges.

The Catholicosate plays multi-dimensional role in preserving and perpetuating the religious ministry, the spiritual nourishment, the cultural heritage, the diaconical calling, the ecumenical awareness, the inter-faith relations and the national inspirations of the Armenian people.

The challenges the Catholicosate –as well as other Churches and Christians– faces in the Middle East –the birthplace of Christ and Christianity– are the Christian witness, the social outreach to the communities in economic crisis, the peace and justice in the regional conflicts and wars, the reduction of the Christian presence in the region because of migration and the intensification of Christian-Muslim relations.

The challenges the Catholicosate faces in its worldwide dioceses are the integration of its faithful to the local situations and preservation of the Christian faith and Armenian ethos in a globalized and multicultural world.

The challenges the Catholicosate faces vis-à-vis the Republic of Armenia, is the political and economic stability and its participation in democratic nation-building process.

The Catholicosate and the whole Armenian Church need to embark on a journey of authentic and in-depth renewal. The Armenian Church has to fulfill the expectations of contemporary Armenians by adapting to the local conditions on the one hand and preserving its centuries-old identity on the other hand. The mission of the Armenian Church today is the re-evangelization of Armenia following its emancipation from coercive atheism as well as the rejuvenation of the Armenian spirituality in a Diaspora increasingly threatened by materialism and secularism.

Michael Papazian invites the Armenian Church to face the future courageously, when he writes: “Today, the Armenian Church faces a new challenge. In the aftermath of the Genocide and the formation of a permanent Diaspora, the Church is in the difficult position of unifying the faithful living in so many dif­ferent countries with distinct cultures. The restoration of an independent Republic of Armenia has taken some of the pressure off of the Church to serve as a political body. But at the same time it has introduced again the question of the relation between the Church and the state – a relation that, as the history of the Church shows, has not always been peaceful.

Perhaps the most pressing matter is whether the Church can accom­modate to the modern world. The modern world and its philosophy pres­ent challenges that are different from those the Church has had to face. In the medieval world, the Church faced opposition from other religions and from other Christian churches. The pressing question then was "what is the proper way to worship God?" The modern world now asks whether there is a God at all. Or in so far as it accepts God, it rejects religions. Modern philosophy is driven by the idea of the freedom and autonomy of the individual. Religion has become a personal matter and the notion of submitting to the authority of a church and its hierarchy seems an alien and archaic idea to many. What place can a church with an ancient liturgy in an ancient language have in such a world? This is the challenge that the Armenian Church, along with other Churches, faces.

The Church is sometimes criticized for being too conservative and unwilling to adapt to the new circumstances. The liturgy is seen as a quaint (old-fashioned) tradition that has little connection with the spiritual needs of the people. Many note that the Church is losing its faithful to churches and religions that are more willing to adapt. But this criticism misses the truth about the Church, always renewed by the Holy Spirit” (Light from Light, pp. 171-172).

Armenian faithful continue their journey of following Christ – the light of the world. Illuminated by the life-giving light of the Holy Gospel of Christand incorporated to the Mother Church through its baptismal font, they honor the following saints by calling them illuminators:

· St. Gregory, the patron saint of the Armenian Church,is called illuminator of spirits for blazing the flame of Christian faith in the spirit of the nation.

· St. Nerses the Great (353-373)is called illuminator of hearts for his extensive charitable ministry.

· St. Mesrob, St. Sahag and the holy translators of the 5thcentury are called illuminators of minds for enlightening the mind of the people with the knowledge of the Holy Bible.

The illumination of the Armenian spirit is symbolized by the Ark of Noah in the Old Testament and the Ark of New Testament, the Church, as the anchors of the covenant with God and the manifestation of the living Christian faith.

The illumination of the Armenian heart is expressed through the attachment Armenians have for the Holy Cross and their eagerness to carry it even up to martyrdom as co-crucified servants of their Crucified Savior.

The illumination of the Armenian mind is embodied in the God-given Armenian alphabet as a shield of cultural perpetuity against the ruthless blows of assimilation.

These three are conveyed as an obedient service to God sustained by the Christian virtues of faith, love and hope.

The great challenge for the Armenians and indeed for all the Christians is how to live our God-given calling as Christians today? How to efficiently continue to reclaim the Armenian faith-heritage for a God-pleasing life?

I will conclude with the visionary assessment of His Holiness Aram I for an Armenian Church in process of transformation, rooted in the tradition and opened up to the winds of change: “The church is a communityof faith. Under no circumstances should we lose this very concept of church. The church’s strong institutionalism has sometimes hampered the efficacy of its witness. It is, therefore, vitally important to sharpen the community character of the Armenian Church by transforming it from a place where people go to a community where people are joined together in Christ, live together the imperatives of the Gospel and strive for the full realization of the kingdom of God. I consider this shift of emphasis from institution to community, from a static to a dynamic notion of church crucial for the future course of the Armenian Church. Institutions may die; but community lives”(The Armenian Church Beyond the 1700thAnniversary, p. 16).


[1]Hereafter I will use Armenian Church referring to the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church.


University of Salzburg-Austria

Wednesday, May 20, 2009