Etchmiadzin functioned as the center of the Armenian Apostolic Church even during Soviet times, which lent it considerable moral authority, no matter how restricted. Stalin reopened its theological seminary after World War II, though mostly as a symbolic gesture. No more than 30 students ever enrolled, few of whom were ordained as priests.
Thanks largely to the efforts of Catholicos Vasken I, Etchmiadzin and the Armenian Apostolic Church enjoyed a small degree of independence.
“The personality of Vasken I was so influential and his charisma so overwhelming that he somehow embodied the deeply concealed aspirations of the people at large,” said Armen Arkesheshian of the Armenia Regional Development Project.
“Communism was in many ways an extremely interesting time from the perspective of how you concealed your real values, which were prohibited, and pretended you didn’t follow them,” he added.
As catholicos-patriarch of all the Armenians, Vasken worked relentlessly until his death in 1994 to assert Etchmiadzin’s position as the spiritual center for all Armenians, while fostering deeper ties with Etchmiadzin’s historical rival, the Armenian Apostolic Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he swiftly made overtures toward the emergent democratic government, overhauled church canons and restructured its administration.
But while Vasken I strengthened the church’s role in Armenian life, it remained resource poor. The church continues to be financially strapped and short of personnel. In 1999, only 100 priests were working in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in neighboring Azerbaijan with a predominantly Armenian population. And while the number has since tripled to about 300, that still only amounts to one priest for every 10,000 people.
“After the Iron Curtain fell, everything went down. It was a free land, but what to do with it?” said Father Vasken Nanian of Etchmiadzin’s Gevorkian Seminary. “We lost pastoral contact; priests didn’t know how to approach people.”
This dearth of resources has become more urgent in recent years as the number of foreign missionaries — Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in particular — proselytizing in Armenia grows. The work of these groups offends many clergy and lay people alike, who view them as a threat to the country’s national security and identity. Many ascribe the success of these sects to the economic assistance they provide converts.
“We don’t understand why they need to Christianize us,” protested Father Gevork. “Our history is a great testament to the power of Christianity and they come here to convert us! They are buying souls. It isn’t honest.”
While the issue ignites heated debate, Father Vasken believes that by simply staying strong and remaining nonconfrontational, the Armenian Apostolic Church can best resist the influence of these nontraditional faiths.
“You [should] send a priest to a village that has been taken over by Jehovah’s Witnesses
even an Armenian Jehovah’s Witness is still an Armenian,” he said.
Father Mkrtich Proshian, who has responsibility for the initial formation of the next generation of Armenia’s priests, would like to see a priest in every community — something he thinks can be accomplished in 10 years at the current rate of ordination.
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Tags: Cultural Identity Armenia Monastery Armenian Apostolic Church Etchmiadzin