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The Armenian Apostolic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Thousands of tribes and peoples litter the pages of world history. After most have distinguished themselves, usually as conquerors or settlers, they pass from the scene, leaving as their legacy a tablet, a ruin or a reputation. The Armenians, whose ancient homeland now encompasses eastern Turkey, the Caucasus and northwestern Iran, have endured for more than 3,000 years – despite the challenges of living along the crossroads of East-West trade. Squeezed between Asia and Europe, Armenians have outlived more powerful neighbors, who repeatedly and relentlessly sought to subjugate them.

How have the Armenians survived, when far more powerful peoples – Romans and Parthians, Byzantines and Sassanids – vanished? Most historians would credit the resolve and resourcefulness of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a powerful body that has either defined or impacted all aspects of Armenian society and culture.

Christianity is adopted. Looming high above the clouds, an extinct volcano marks the site where the children of Abraham – Jews, Christians and Muslims – believe humanity regenerated after the great flood. According to the Book of Genesis, here, on Mount Ararat, Noah’s ark rested. And on these sacred slopes God promised Noah he would never again destroy creation with water.

In the shadow of Ararat, perched on a lesser hill but severed from the mountain by barbed wire, a small church stands above a dungeon. For more than 13 years this pit, some 23 feet deep, interned the future “illuminator of the Armenians,” Gregory. The son of a Parthian noble who had assassinated the Armenian king, Gregory joined the Armenians in their struggle against the powerful Parthians as an act of atonement. Learning of Gregory’s background, Tiridates III, the son and successor of the dead king, cast Gregory into the pit, leaving him there without food or water. Gregory survived, however, thanks to the efforts of a widow.

A proud and vain ruler, Tiridates despaired after having killed two Roman Christian virgins, Gayane and Hripsime, who with their companions sought refuge in Armenia (a famed beauty, Hripsime had refused the king’s advances). Summoned to heal Tiridates, whose unstable behavior had shaken the kingdom, Gregory instructed the king and his court to “recognize the Creator of all and throw off the yoke of evil…Know God. Put away your idols. He is long-suffering, forgiving and nurturing in his mercy…God cares for you all.”

Gregory earned not only his release, but a Christian nation. In 301, Gregory the Illuminator baptized the king and the entire court. The king declared Christianity as the state religion, establishing Armenia as the first Christian nation.

A Roman scribe, known to history as Agathangelos, recorded these events based on contemporary sources more than a century after the deaths of the principals. What is not documented, however, is the origin of Armenian Christianity. Even during the time of Gregory, Armenian Christians exhibited familiarity with the Syriac Christian customs of the Near East as well as the Greek Christian vocabulary of Asia Minor – both Greek and Syriac were employed in the celebration of the Eucharist. Ancient tradition credits the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus as the source of the Christian faith in Armenia.

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Tags: Church history Armenian Apostolic Church Catholicos Karekin II Oriental Orthodox