The Armenian Apostolic Church
Ancient Armenia was located in present-day eastern Turkey and in bordering areas of the former Soviet Union and Iran. This country became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion when King Tiridates III was converted to the Christian faith by St. Gregory the Illuminator at the beginning of the 4th century. A cathedral was soon built at Etchmiadzin which to this day remains the center of the Armenian Church. It is widely believed that the monk St. Mesrob invented the Armenian alphabet around the year 404, making it possible for the Bible to be translated into that language.
In 506 an Armenian synod rejected the christological teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451), which no Armenian bishop had attended. At that time the Armenian Church was more concerned with countering the nestorianizing tendencies of the neighboring church in the Persian Empire.
Long a vulnerable buffer state between the hostile Roman and Persian empires, the ancient Armenian kingdom was destroyed in the 11th century. Many Armenians then fled to Cilicia (in south central Asia Minor), where a new Armenian kingdom was established. Here the Armenians had extensive contacts with the Latin Crusaders. Although this new kingdom also ceased to exist by the 14th century and the Armenian people were dispersed, they survived in spite of foreign domination. Their identity as a people centered on their language and their church.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Armenians in Turkey suffered a series of massacres and expulsions that led to the death of large numbers of them. It is widely believed that altogether between 1.5 and 2 million Armenians died in the genocide. The survivors fled to neighboring countries and to Istanbul.
Today the Armenian Apostolic Church is centered in the Republic of Armenia which declared its independence from the Soviet Union on September 23, 1991. The Holy See of Etchmiadzin, the ancient residence of the Armenian Catholicos, is near Yerevan, the capital. The collapse of communism has provided conditions for a renaissance of this ancient church in its homeland. New dioceses, parishes and seminaries have been opened, many new priests have been ordained, new organizations founded, religious periodicals published, and religious instruction introduced in the schools. But the church still does not have sufficient clergy, and feels threatened by the activity of other religious groups that are now free to function in the country.
The 2005 Armenian constitution provides for freedom of religion and the exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church as a national church in the spiritual life, development of the national culture and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia. The Law on Freedom of Conscience, most recently amended in 2001, establishes the separation of church and state but grants the Armenian Apostolic Church official status as the national church. Armenian law places some restrictions on the activity of other religious groups.
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